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Oklahoma and Akron open the season in Norman this weekend in a contest that looks to be a lopsided affair. Vegas has installed OU as a 31-point favorite over what appears to be an overmatched bunch of Zips.
The Sooners are still feeling the sting of last year’s meltdown, which ended in a 40-6 spanking from Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. That led to a major shakeup in Bob Stoops’ coaching staff and brought about yet another change in OU’s offensive scheme. Entering his 17th season as head coach of the Sooners, Stoops may be looking to start one last run before stepping down at some point in the next few years.
Meanwhile, this will be the first visit to Norman for Akron’s veteran coach Terry Bowden. His first three years with the Zips have yet to produce a bowl berth, but Akron should be knocking on the door of the postseason in 2015. As unlikely as a win may be here, it will give Bowden and his staff a chance to evaluate a slew of new starters at receiver and defensive back before the Zips take on Pittsburgh in a winnable game in week two.
Akron at Oklahoma
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Pay-Per-View
Spread: Oklahoma -31
Three Things to Watch
1. Lincoln Riley’s Offense
Meet OU’s new boss on offense, same as the old boss. Riley may be new to Norman, but his offensive scheme is awfully familiar. After letting go of both offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and the Pistol offense earlier this year, Bob Stoops decided to return to the Air Raid, the pass-happy system that helped him get his fast start at OU. Stoops couldn’t bring back Mike Leach, so he settled on Leach’s protégé Riley as the offensive guru to get the Sooners back on track. After spending four years as East Carolina’s coordinator, Riley has never had such an abundance of weapons at his disposal. He might be as excited as Sooner fans to finally see what he can do with them.
2. Joe Mixon’s Role
Mixon might be the most explosive weapon in Riley’s arsenal. Sooner fans will get their first glimpse of OU’s ballyhooed freshman running back on Saturday after Mixon was separated from the team last year. Based on the scuttlebutt coming out of preseason camp, the California phenom won’t disappoint. Mixon possesses the ideal skill set for a running back in the Air Raid, although there’s no guarantee he will only line up in the backfield this year. Look for Riley to put him on the field together with fellow stud running back Samaje Perine and occasionally shift Mixon out to slot receiver to give defenses one more thing to think about.
3. The Defensive Scheme
Once again, the OU coaching staff opted to tinker with the Sooners’ defensive scheme, mixing in some 4-2-5 to go with their base 3-4 alignment. Akron should offer an early litmus test to see if the tweaks have done anything to help OU’s pass defense. The Zips run a fairly conventional version of the spread featuring a lot of four-wide sets, so the defensive backs should have a chance to show off what they’ve learned under new secondary coach Kerry Cooks. After relying heavily on loose coverage schemes last season, keep an eye on just how tight OU’s DBs line up against Akron’s wideouts.
It’s difficult to find any way that this game becomes something other than a dress rehearsal for OU and a nice payday for the visitors. Everyone at Owen Field on Saturday night will want to wash the bad taste from last season out of their mouths, from the players to the fans. Even in the event of a blowout, don’t be surprised if OU quarterback Baker Mayfield and the rest of the first-string offense see extended action in an effort to get comfortable with their new offensive scheme. Just don’t expect Riley to dig too deep into the playbook.
Given Akron’s propensity to turn the ball over—the Zips finished 101st nationally a year ago with 26 giveaways in just 12 games—the Sooners could get a defensive score to add a little cushion to the final margin of victory.
Prediction: Oklahoma 44, Akron 13
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
Outside expectations on UCLA football are not as high entering 2015 as they were a season ago. That's rather ironic, given the Bruins return a much more veteran lineup, particularly in areas that were question marks a season ago.
Nevertheless, head coach Jim Mora is probably just fine with flying somewhat under the national radar. He has arguably his best team since arriving at UCLA in 2012 — and that's saying something, given the Bruins have won 29 games over the last three seasons.
A promising 2015 campaign opens Saturday at the Rose Bowl with an opponent UCLA knows all-too-well can pose real problems. Despite a three-year bowl drought, the Virginia Cavaliers play an aggressive defensive style that very nearly derailed the Bruins' 2014 season in Week 1.
Virginia at UCLA
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: UCLA -19.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Rosen's College Debut
Months of speculation came to a head last week, when UCLA head coach Jim Mora named 5-star freshman quarterback Josh Rosen the starter for Week 1. Rosen replaces three-year starter Brett Hundley, the only starting quarterback Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have known in their time at UCLA.
Aside from his lack of collegiate experience, the true freshman Rosen is a different style quarterback than his predecessor. Hundley was an excellent scrambler, whereas Rosen is renowned for his pocket presence. How much adjustment is required from the rest of the Bruin offense will be explained pretty quickly against a Virginia defense that blitzes frequently.
Mora noted that the Cavaliers succeeded in pressuring Hundley a season ago, adding: "And he was a three-year starter."
To deal with the blitz, expect the Bruins to rely on the Pac-12's leading rusher, Paul Perkins. Perkins should see a steady workload, particularly early.
2. Who Makes Big Plays in Ishmael Adams' Place?
Ishmael Adams' indefinite suspension for an alleged robbery leaves two sizable holes the Bruins must patch. The first is in the secondary, which is one of the nation's best with Adams in the lineup. The Bruins get back talented Randall Goforth, who joins veteran Fabian Moreau and sophomore Jaleel Wadood, who broke out late last season.
Without Adams, however, UCLA needs someone to step up to deliver game-changing plays. Adams had a keen knack for just that, including against Virginia last August when he took an interception for a touchdown. Moreau has been seeking his breakout since coming to UCLA. With Adams out of the lineup, Moreau will be looked upon to step up as the team's shutdown corner.
Also look for new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a linebackers guru, to get the most from the talented one-two punch of Myles Jack and Deon Hollins. With Hollins bringing pressure off the edge, Jack is more than capable of dropping back into pass coverage to make plays there.
There is no shortage of answers on defense, but Adams' absence extends to special teams. Last season, he functioned as the primary kickoff returner, and the sole punt returner. His 100-yard run-back against Arizona State snapped a seven-year special teams touchdown drought for the Bruins.
3. Coming Up Roses at Home
The Rose Bowl is arguably the most picturesque venue in college football, and a record number of fans visited it for UCLA home games in 2014. Still, the beautiful venue in Pasadena was too often a house of horrors for the Bruins.
All three of UCLA's losses were at home, including the regular-season finale blowout against Stanford that kept the Bruins out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Defending the home turf is vital to UCLA's Pac-12 title aspirations in 2015. Setting the right tone in Week 1 is crucial.
Growing pains may be evident for the Bruin offense early, particularly against a stout Virginia defense. Perkins having solidified himself as a reliable No. 1 running back does help, and is something UCLA lacked a season ago in its visit to Charlottesville. It was only in the second half of that contest that Mora and Mazzone turned to him.
Playing a more conservative style on offense while establishing its authority on defense promises UCLA will be locked in a close contest through the first half. However, as Virginia fails to mount drives on a stout Bruin defense, look for the flood gates to open in the third or fourth quarter as UCLA wins a war of attrition.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Virginia 14
The Arkansas Razorbacks open up the 2015 college football season at home against the UTEP Miners. Both squads are coming off 7-6 seasons in 2014 but for the first time in three years Arkansas has hopes of contending for a SEC West title.
When UTEP and Arkansas kick off on Saturday, a war of offensive line play will go into effect. The Miners and Razorbacks both have four offensive starters returning up front and each have a premiere back to feature. The unit that can impose their style of play will determine the flow of the game.
The Miners return junior running back Aaron Jones and his 1,300 yards on the ground from a year ago. Arkansas will highlight a junior as well, Alex Collins. Collins split time with Jonathan Williams in 2014 but will be the marquee guy in the backfield early in the season after a 1,100-yard season as a sophomore.
Both defenses are young but Arkansas heads into the game healthy. UTEP lost starting safeties Devin Cockrell and Ishmael Harrison to injuries leaving a void of 37 combined starts in the secondary. Arkansas is without its top four defenders from last year’s No. 10 ranked unit but returns six starters with a heavy mix of talented but young players ready to work their way into playing time in conference action.
UTEP at Arkansas
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Line: Arkansas -33
Three Things to Watch
1. Stopping UTEP Running Back Aaron Jones
The Razorbacks have key upcoming games against Air-Raid offenses in Texas Tech and Texas A&M but will get pushed in the ground game by the Miners. Stopping Aaron Jones will be a nice opening game test.
Starting UTEP quarterback Mack Leftwich redshirted last season but picked up four starts in 2013. If Leftwich is unable to move the chains with his arm expect to see up to eight Razorback defenders in the box devoted to stopping Jones.
2. Arkansas Establishing a Passing Attack
The Hogs return four starters along the offensive line and have Alex Collins in the backfield; this unit is set for a win with that group alone. Getting reps for junior running back Kody Walker and true freshman Rawleigh Williams cannot be understated, but getting senior quarterback Brandon Allen into a groove with his young but talented receiving corps is a must.
Arkansas’ passing attack was anemic, to say the least, last season averaging 188 yards a game. If SEC title hopes are to be achieved Allen and company will need to see their per game passing numbers in the 230 to 250 yard range.
3. Arkansas’ Defense — Can they be a Top 25 unit again in 2015?
Opening games are about setting tones for the season and establishing a team identity. What will Arkansas’ identity be in 2015? Can the Razorbacks’ six returning starters keep that momentum going this season?
The Hogs were successful limiting teams to 115 rushing yards per game and 209 passing yards. Can the revamped linebacker unit with junior Brooks Ellis at the weak-side, sophomore Khalia Hackett in the middle, and junior Josh Williams on the strong-side stop the run and cover in space on passing downs? Depth at linebacker, especially in the middle is a concern. Will the Hogs get a big enough lead early to get second and third-team guys on the field for needed reps?
Another undertone to the game for Arkansas is establishing a consistent pass rush. The Hogs are stacked with potential at defensive end but for now that is all they are, a great looking group with a lot of potential. The Miners could be an early confidence builder for JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Deatrich Wise, and Tevin Beanum.
Arkansas should steamroll the Miners if turnovers and penalties are not a factor in the game. Seeing the defense gel and second-unit players step up into rolls as contributors going forward is key for Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.
Although UTEP is in their second year under Sean Kugler, and much improved from 2013 when the Miners won just two games, they are still a couple of years behind potentially upsetting a ranked team. In 2014 the Miners were not competitive in losses to Kansas State (58-28) and Louisiana Tech (55-3) but did give a one-dimensional Texas Tech team a scare before falling 30-26.
Prediction: Arkansas 48, UTEP 14
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
Two promising head coaches begin their tenures at new schools when Youngstown State visits the neighboring Pittsburgh Panthers. Youngstown native Bo Pelini comes from Nebraska to guide the Penguins, who knocked off Pitt at Heinz Field just three years ago. Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi begins his tenure at Pitt ironically playing the program his father Bill guided to Division I status in the 1980s.
Youngstown State at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Three Things To Watch
1. Who Steps up in Boyd's absence?
Pitt junior wide receiver Tyler Boyd will be suspended for this game due to his offseason DUI. despite establishing himself as a pro prospect last season after averaging more than 16 yards on 78 receptions. Unfortunately no other receiver of note returned to the Panthers this season, thus making junior Dontez Ford, who caught three passes in 2014, Pitt's most experienced receiver coming into the game. Zack Challingsworth is projected to start opposite Ford, which means the two starting receivers against YSU only played Class AA football in the WPIAL. Freshmen Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton could also see action. Henderson is only 5-9, but Tipton, a quarterback at Apollo-Ridge, excelled in three sports and was the Class AA Pennsylvania long jump champion. Also look to Elijah Zeise, a redshirt freshman originally recruited as a defensive back, but also a top-100 recruit out of Class AAAA North Allegheny.
2. How much action does Conner get?
If Pitt were to have an outstanding season in 2015, junior running back James Conner will likely receive some Heisman attention. A player who rushed for 5.9 yards a carry in 2014 with 26 touchdowns and 1,800 yards would figure to be the main contributor to Panthers fortunes, and Pitt will go as far as he can take them. Furthermore, with a somewhat sketchy defense, the ability to run down the clock figures to be paramount. That said, if Pitt needs 30 carries from Conner against Youngstown State, something is wrong. Chris James rushed for 439 yards on 87 carries last year and is projected to see more action this year, if for no other reason than to save Conner from pounding. It might speak best for long-range Panthers fortunes for James and/or highly regarded Darrin Hall to be the leading rusher in this game.
3. Will Chad Voytik be protected?
Ideally the game plan would have junior quarterback Chad Voytik establish a rapport with a new receiver for a couple of long bombs, secure a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, and then be taken out sometime in the second half for an easy victory, much like Pitt won their tune-up game against Delaware 62-0 last year. That won't happen this season with Terrell Williams and Derek Rivers lining up at defensive end for the Penguins. Rivers had 13 sacks last year and Williams complied 10, while Pitt will play four new starters on the offensive line. Thankfully for Pitt, left tackle is not the position the Panthers must replace, as 6-6 305-pound Adam Bisnowaty returns for his junior year.
Everyone knows Pitt lost to Youngstown State, 31-17, three years ago in Paul Chryst's debut as Panthers coach. But does a YSU victory really seem likely this time out? Yes, YSU has been projected to be a Top 25 FCS team, and new Pelini has brought in several quality transfers from FBS. But a Pitt loss? No. A close game? Perhaps.
Prediction: Pitt 35, Youngstown State 17
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
Each season, Clemson schedules one of the FCS schools in South Carolina. Some years they play Furman, other years it is South Carolina State, and sometimes it is The Citadel. This year it’s Wofford, from just up the road in Spartanburg that will be coming to Death Valley.
Wofford returns 10 starters on offense and nine on defense from a 6-5 team. Last season the Terriers opened the season by going to Georgia Tech, where they lost 38-19 to the Orange Bowl champs. They run the triple option so Clemson’s defensive backs will be peeking into the backfield all day long.
The bar is set high this year at Clemson and the fans will be ready when the Tigers run down the hill on Saturday.
Wofford at Clemson
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ACC Network/ESPN3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Health of Deshaun Watson
This will be Watson’s first real action since having his ACL repaired in December. Perhaps no team in America has its hopes tied to one player as much as Clemson does to Watson. The offense looked completely different with the freshman running the show last year and backup Nick Schuessler has very little game experience. Head coach Dabo Swinney will protect his star quarterback as much as he can, but we will see how well Watson moves around on Saturday.
2. Clemson's Offensive Line
The good news for Clemson is that the Tigers have three seniors starting on the offensive line. The bad news is that only one of those seniors is a true returning starter and the depth behind the first group is very young. Center Ryan Norton has played a lot of football in his career and will lead the unit. Watson’s blindside will be shielded by true freshman Mitch Hyatt. Protecting the quarterback was not an issue last year but blocking for Wayne Gallman and the other backs was. With skill talent aplenty, this is the biggest question mark for the Clemson offense.
3. The Defensive Front vs. Wofford’s Option
The questions that surround the offensive line hover over the defensive front seven as well. With the recent departure of defensive tackle D.J. Reader, Shaq Lawson is the only returning defensive lineman that was on last year’s two-deep. The linebacker unit was stung by the loss of Korrin Wiggins and Korie Rogers. There is more than enough talent here to contain Wofford. But on Oct. 10, Georgia Tech will bring its option attack to Clemson. If the Terriers can exploit certain areas even a little, Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets will take notice.
For a game that will not be competitive, there will be a lot to watch in this one. Watson’s every move will be dissected by Clemson fans as well as the Tigers' upcoming opponents. The play of both lines will also be analyzed closely. Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman are always entertaining, even if we only see them for the first half. Clemson will win going away, but defending the run and offensive line play for the Tigers will be areas of intense interest.
Prediction: Clemson 48, Wofford 10
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
Rutgers kicks off their 2015 campaign under mass scrutiny after a late August internal investigation involving head coach Kyle Flood, and the suspension of five players for the first half of their opener against Norfolk State. If nothing else, Rutgers must come out with a bang against their season-opening FCS opponent, who’s coming off a 4-8 season and heads into 2015 with a new head coach in Latrell Scott, who went 29-5 during his three seasons at Virginia State.
Flood and the Scarlet Knights will be without leading receiver and team captain Leonte Carroo, who will sit out the first half while serving a suspension for breaking a team curfew rule. Joining him is linebacker Kevin Marquez, punter Tim Gleeson, cornerback Ruhaan Peele, and quarterback Chris Laviano. Laviano, unlike the four joining him on the sideline for curfew violations, was caught attempting to enter an establishment with a fake ID. In light of Laviano’s suspension, LSU transfer Hayden Rettig gets the nod under center to start the 2015 campaign.
While Flood would not commit to Rettig beyond the first half, many have given him the nod as the better quarterback. Laviano has the most experience of any quarterback on the roster, having thrown 11 passes in his collegiate career. Carroo, the aforementioned team captain, and team’s leading receiver will be the biggest loss to a team looking to follow the momentum gained from an unexpected 8-5 debut Big Ten campaign from 2014.
As for Norfolk State, they’re returning nine offensive starters, and five defensively from their 4-8 2014 squad. Florida Atlantic junior quarterback transfer Greg Hankerson gets the nod as the team’s starting quarterback after two seasons in Conference USA. Hankerson’s most notable accomplishment under center to date is his 12-19 for 88 yard performance against Alabama last season, a game Florida Atlantic lost 41-0.
Defensive captain linebacker Deon King returns for the Spartans after a stellar 2014 season where he tallied 104 total tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and a lone interception. Joining him are four fellow returning starters, including linebacker Lamar Neal (85 tackles, 35 TFL, 1 sack) and cornerback Brandon Walker, a cornerback who totaled 43 tackles last season.
Norfolk State at Rutgers
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Location: Highpoints Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, NJ
Three Things to Watch
1. Hayden Rettig’s Scarlet Knights debut
Rettig, a 2014 transfer, has yet to throw a pass at the collegiate level after signing with the Tigers as a four-star recruit in 2013. He hopes to get his chance to prove to head coach Kyle Flood that he’s the quarterback to lead this team down the stretch through the 2015 season — one crucial for the entire program, especially Flood after the summer’s end he’s endured. Rettig will be without Leonte Carroo, who we mentioned will serve a first-half suspension. If Flood chooses to pull Rettig at halftime, we may not know what he could have done with a playmaker like Carroo on the field.
2. Defensive Efficiency
Rutgers has never allowed a single point against Norfolk State in any of the three contests they faced off in. Defense is going to need to show as a strong point for Rutgers if they’re going to compete at a high level in the Big Ten in 2015. The Scarlet Knights are in a good position against the Spartans, whose starting quarterback wasn’t on the team last season, and the team’s leading rusher from last season totaled 114 yards on the ground — good news for the nation’s 102nd-ranked defense from a year ago.
3. Greg Hankerson
Hankerson, as mentioned before, is a former FBS quarterback who transferred to an FCS school to avoid having to sit out an entire season after losing the quarterback battle with the Owls. Hankerson showed solid efficiency during his time at FAU, and completed nearly 67 percent of his passes against Alabama in a game that was over in the first quarter. If Hankerson can move the ball quickly and accurately, he could have Rutgers on their heels early, forcing them to play out of their comfort on their own side of the field.
Rutgers has outscored Norfolk State 139-0 in the three contests they've faced off in. Rettig's first half could go either way for the inexperienced LSU transfer, but not bad enough to where the Scarlet Knights will be on heels on the verge of an upset. Rutgers has handled the Spartans with ease in the past, and this should be no different.
Prediction: Rutgers 35, Norfolk State 9
— Written by Chris Dougherty, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Dougherty also serves as a National Recruiting Analyst for 247Sports.com and has written for other sites, including FanSided.com and Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @warontheweekend.
This is a battle of contrasting styles, between a squad with a bruising running game and gritty defense versus a speedy team who likes to spread out and hurl the ball all over the field. Traditionally, the former would be from the Midwest while the latter hails from the West Coast. Actually, these two are the complete opposites of those stereotypes. The first team mentioned comes from the Pac-12 team while the second one belongs to the Big Ten.
This type of inter-sectional match matters in the minds of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. The Big Ten's reputation took a beating in September of last season in part due to the Pac-12's winning four of five of the regular season contests between the conferences. That tattered reputation could have cost Ohio State a berth in the playoffs if not for the co-championship mess in the Big 12.
Stanford Cardinal at Northwestern Wildcats
Kickoff: 11 a.m. CT (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford +12
Three Things to Watch
1. Untried Wildcats' Quarterback versus Experienced Cardinal Secondary
Last week, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald announced that Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman, will start in the season-opener. He will be throwing against three seniors (Kodi Whitfield, Dallas Lloyd and Ronnie Harris), all of whom played in at least nine games during last season, plus a sophomore (Alijah Holder). If Thorson struggles, how long will Fitzgerald let that continue before inserting redshirt sophomore Matt Alviti or senior Zack Oliver into the game?
2. Senior Wildcat Skill Position Players Need to Alleviate Pressure on Young QB
Has fifth year senior wide receiver Christian Jones fully recovered from his torn ACL in order to serve Thorson as a dependable weapon downfield? The other upperclassmen at wide receiver, seniors Cameron Dickson, Miles Shuler and Pierre Youngblood-Ary plus juniors Mike McHugh, Andrew Scanlan and Austin Carr must do their utmost to break free of defenders and be open for passes. They cannot expect a quarterback making his first collegiate start to have pinpoint accuracy or squeeze the ball between his intended receiver and a defender blanketing his intended target. Also Dan Vitale will have to be able to serve as a safety valve for the neophyte under center. The knowledge that he does not throw perfectly and has running game to make the defense back off from blitzing frequently will maintain the confidence of the untested quarterback.
3. Early Kickoff Time
How will the 11 AM start affect the guys from the West Coast? Could the two-hour difference make the Cardinal sluggish in the first half? The fall quarter has not started yet so the crew from Palo Alto have not been waking up at the crack of dawn for classes. Have the players been mentally and physically preparing themselves for what will feel like a 6 AM wake-up call, if not earlier, for their season opener?
As often happens when a Pacific Twelve team ventures eastward for an early kickoff, the visitors will seem lethargic. The Wildcats will also struggle on offense. The game should be low-scoring, in the single digits to the low teens, until the start of the second half. The Cardinal will have had their lattes at that point. Then they will proceed to pounding away with their running game, breaking off bigger gainers as the second half progresses. Stanford will run away with the game in the fourth quarter which is when the Cardinal will score the majority of its points.
Prediction: Stanford 34, Northwestern 12
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has spent the last three seasons building the Rebels into one of the nation’s most talented teams. After a surprising 7-6 record in his first year in Oxford, Freeze landed the greatest recruiting class in school history, which included such supremely talented players as defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, tackle Laremy Tunsil, safety Tony Conner and tight end Evan Engram.
Because of their lofty professional prospects, it’s possible that each of those five players are playing their final seasons at Ole Miss as juniors, which means this is Freeze’s best shot for an SEC championship or possibly even a national title.
UT-Martin at Ole Miss
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: SEC Network alternate
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss Starting Quarterback Chad Kelly
Earlier this week, Hugh Freeze announced that quarterback Chad Kelly would get the start against UT Martin, but that Kelly’s top two competitors for the job - sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade – would also play and will still have an opportunity to wrestle the top spot on the depth chart away from Kelly. A junior in his first season in Oxford after beginning his college career at Clemson and spending 2014 at East Mississippi Community College, Kelly led EMCC to a 12-0 record and the NJCAA national championship last year. Expect him to shine against the Skyhawks and lock down the starting job for good by the SEC opener September 19 at Alabama.
2. Defensive Newcomers
By allowing an average of only 16 points per game, Ole Miss led the nation in scoring defense last season. However, four of the most important pieces of the unit - All-American defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt and linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Serderius Bryant – have exhausted their eligibility. The linebacker replacements are familiar faces, specifically former starting defensive end C.J. Johnson who is expected to start in the middle and Denzel Nkemdiche, who will see early action on the outside, though both are listed as co-starters with Terry Caldwell and DeMarquis Gates, respectively.
The Rebels should lean on talented JUCO transfers Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard at cornerback this season (though Shepard, who was a member of the 2014 recruiting class that missed last season with a foot injury, is listed as a co-starter with Kendarius Webster). Fellow transfer D.J. Jones will serve as one of the primary backups at defensive tackle and should be a major contributer in the D-Line rotation.
3. Improvement in the Running Game
Last season, Ole Miss ranked tenth in the SEC and No. 73 in the nation in rushing offense (155.5 yards per game), but there is reason to believe that will improve in 2015. The Rebels have the SEC’s most experienced offensive line (120 combined career starts) and got even better with true freshman left guard Javon Patterson earning a starting spot. The depth at the running back position is strong thanks to last year’s top two leading returning rushers Jaylen Watkins and Jordan Wilkins, plus Akeem Judd is a developing contributor. Finally, Kelly is a mobile quarterback and should be a bigger threat in the running game than departed starter Bo Wallace.
Ole Miss is a legitimate contender in the SEC West and UT Martin was 6-6 last season on the FCS level, and lost to Kentucky 59-13 and Mississippi State 45-16. This game is simply a warm-up for the Rebels that will allow Freeze and the coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate the team on the field heading into a Week 2 matchup with a much tougher Fresno State squad, and then the SEC opener at Alabama.
Prediction: Ole Miss 45, UT-Martin 3
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
The honeymoon is over for new Kansas head coach David Beaty. On Saturday, he'll begin his first season at the helm of the Jayhawk program. He'll be leading a young and inexperienced squad into in a 2015 campaign where moral victories are going to be the norm. It's going to be a true rebuilding effort in Kansas — more so than any other time in recent memory.
In seasons like these, it's nice for a program in the Jayhawks' state to start off the year with a more manageable opponent — perhaps even an FCS school. Well, they got the FCS school, I'm just not sure about the manageable part.
South Dakota State is among the toughest FCS programs — year in, year out — as of late. They play in the Missouri Valley, considered by many as the "SEC of FCS." They hold their own in that conference, which is also home to 4-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State. The Jackrabbits lost five games a season ago: two to North Dakota State, one to FCS runner-up Illinois State, one to fellow FCS powerhouse Youngstown State and one to SEC finalist Missouri. They averaged a 19-point margin of victory in their nine wins. South Dakota State is quite simply a sound program that does not lose to bad teams.
South Dakota State at Kansas
Kickoff: 11 a.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: N/A
Three Things to Watch
1. How effective will the Jackrabbit running game be without Zack Zenner?
As South Dakota State prepares for Kansas, Zenner is getting dressed in the Detroit Lions roster, trying to continue his career. Replacing the most prolific FCS running back from the past two seasons won't be easy. In fact, it will be done by committee. Brady Mengarelli and Reggie Gandy are expected to split carries — at least early on in the season. Both are smaller than Zenner with different running styles. They are nowhere near the bruiser Zenner was between the tackles, but they are every bit as quick into and through the hole. The Jayhawks defense — led by linebacker Jake Love — will need to stay loyal to their gap assignments to prevent the Jackrabbit duo from hitting home runs in the running game all afternoon.
2. Can the Jayhawks jump out to a lead early?
The quickest way to take a would-be underdog out of a game is to jump on them early and take the emotion out of the contest. Jayhawk quarterback Montell Cozart will need to pilot his offense to some long drives that yield points early. That will be easier said than done against a South Dakota State defense that returns nine starters. Kansas' inexperienced receiving corps — led by Tre' Parmalee — might need to grow up early and make a couple of big plays for the Jayhawks to start fast.
3. Can the Jayhawks slow down the Jackrabbit passing game?
In previous years, the running game has been the bread and butter of the South Dakota State offense. In 2015, however, the passing game looks to be the strength of the offensive attack. Quarterback Zach Lugan will have one of the most talented young receivers in the country in Jake Wieneke to throw to again. In 2014 as a true freshman, Wieneke caught 73 balls for 1,404 yards, earning him Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year honors. Kansas will attempt to counter the passing attack with a secondary that returns no starters.
As you can tell, this game has bad news written all over it for Kansas. If they win, nobody cares, because you are supposed to beat FCS schools as a Power-5 program. The fact of the matter is, the Jackrabbits enter this game as the better coached, more experienced and arguably more talented team. It's going to be a long day followed by a long season in Lawrence. Brighter days are probably ahead, but not anytime soon — and especially not Saturday.
Prediction: South Dakota State 31, Kansas 20
Washington coach Chris Petersen returns to familiar surroundings on Friday night, as the Huskies take on Boise State in one of the top matchups from Week 1. Petersen guided the Broncos to 92 wins from 2006-13 and left to take over for Steve Sarkisian prior to the 2014 season. Petersen’s debut wasn’t quite the year most expected (8-6), and the Huskies are in rebuild mode with only eight returning starters this fall.
On the other sideline, Bryan Harsin was tapped to replace Petersen, and the former Boise State quarterback and assistant is off to a great start after guiding the program to a 12-2 record and a Fiesta Bowl win last season. Despite breaking in a new quarterback and running back to replace Jay Ajayi, the Broncos are projected by most to be the top Group of 5 team in 2015.
Washington and Boise State have played three times, with the Huskies holding a 2-1 edge. The last meeting between these two programs came in 2012, and this will be the Huskies’ first trip to the blue turf for a regular season matchup.
Washington at Boise State
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Friday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Boise State -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Who Starts for Washington at Quarterback?
Washington ended fall camp with three players locked into a tight battle for the starting job. True freshman Jake Browning, redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and junior Jeff Lindquist battled all offseason for the No. 1 spot, and a clear frontrunner did not emerge prior to game week. Browning has the most talent, but Carta-Samuels and Lindquist bring more mobility to the offense, which could be a valuable asset behind a revamped offensive line. Regardless of which quarterback takes the first snap, they will be going against a tough Boise State defense and a raucous home crowd in Albertsons Stadium. This is not the ideal scenario for breaking in a new quarterback.
2. Ryan Finley’s First Start at QB/New RB for Boise State
Boise State usually has no trouble reloading at quarterback. Will that be the case once again in 2015? With Grant Hedrick departing, Finley is set to make his first start for the Broncos on Friday night. In limited action last season, Finley completed 12 of 27 passes for 161 yards and two scores. The Arizona native is surrounded by a strong supporting cast up front and has proven weapons in Thomas Sperbeck and Shane Williams-Rhodes to target in the passing attack. Similar to the quarterback spot, finding the next standout at running back usually doesn’t present many headaches for Boise State. While Jay Ajayi’s production (1,823 yards) will be missed, there are capable candidates in the mix. Jeremy McNichols is the frontrunner for carries, followed by Stanford transfer Kelsey Young and Devan Demas. Who will emerge as the clear No. 1? Or will this be a committee approach?
3. Washington’s Revamped Defense
An overlooked aspect of Washington’s offseason has to be the new faces stepping in on defense after the departures of standouts Shaq Thompson (LB), Danny Shelton (NT), Hau’oli Kikaha (DE/LB) and Andrew Hudson (end). That’s a lot of key pieces to replace in one offseason from a group that allowed 24.8 points per game in 2014. This unit returns four starters for 2015, including standout safety Budda Baker. But the front seven must be revamped, and the Huskies lost virtually their entire pass rush with the departures of Kikaha, Hudson and Shelton. While this unit must be revamped, there is talent in the mix – it’s just inexperienced. Will this unit quickly find the right mix? Or will the Huskies’ defense struggle on the road at Boise State?
Chris Petersen and his return to Boise State will get most of the attention in this game. While Petersen seems to be the right coach for Washington, it’s going to take some time to rebuild the depth chart after heavy offseason departures. And it certainly doesn’t help the Huskies’ upset bid to enter this matchup with uncertainty at quarterback. Washington has too many new faces to win this one, but this team will get better as the year progresses. Finley and McNichols turn in a solid performance in their debut, and the Broncos begin their run to another New Year’s Six bowl game with 14-point victory.
Prediction: Boise State 34, Washington 20
The Georgia Bulldogs return 13 starters from a 10-win season last year including Heisman hopeful running back Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs welcome in new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and new starting quarterback and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert in 2015. The Bulldogs have only lost one season home opener in Mark Richt’s tenure which came in 2011 versus South Carolina.
The ULM Warhawks welcome back 14 starters from a disappointing 4-8 2014 campaign and will look to turn those numbers around in the Sun Belt this year.
The Bulldogs and ULM last met in 2005 with Georgia winning 44-7.
ULM at Georgia
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: UGA -35
Three Things to Watch
1. The Nick Chubb Show
For the first time in 2015 we will get to see Heisman hopeful Nick Chubb on the football field. Chubb performed brilliantly in place of Todd Gurley last year and finished the season as one of the top running backs in the nation. With Georgia breaking in a new quarterback in Greyson Lambert, expect to see a ton of running plays on Saturday and most of those in the first half will be going to Chubb.
2. Year 2 of the Jeremy Pruitt Defense
This will be the first time in his short career that we will get to see a Jeremy Pruitt led defense in its second year, as he only spent one year at FSU. Pruitt had an up and down season last year in Athens but gets most of his playmakers back and then some. This Georgia defense could be one of the best in the SEC but only time will tell. We probably won’t see the bulk of that defense on Saturday but should get a taste of what Pruitt will do with seniors Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins as both will take on multiple roles in 2015.
3. Greyson Lambert
Though I don’t expect to see Lambert throw a ton in this game, I do expect to see Schottenheimer put him in situations where he has to make good decisions. Remember, South Carolina comes to town in a couple of weeks and the Bulldogs cannot afford questions about their starting quarterback to continue. Lambert will need to show that he can command the offense and not make bad decisions. Better teams will load the box and make Lambert beat them by throwing the ball. Might as well practice that now and not wait for it to happen later down the road.
Georgia wins big here. The Bulldogs are just too deep on offense and too skilled on defense to let ULM upset them. The Bulldogs will run three different running backs that could all rush for 100 yards against this defense. The Bulldogs should be able to run plenty of young guys early in this game to give them more practice as this game will probably be over by the second quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 45, ULM 10
— Written by Justin Nails, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @justinnails
College Football is back and so are my weekly picks against the spread. I will do my best to give sage and timely advice every Friday morning… for entertainment purposes only, of course.
Week 1 is the best week of the year as so much is unknown about most teams and spreads are generally off kilter.
Look for programs you think are underrated in the preseason and are facing young teams with lots of new starters. Public perception is further askew this week than any other week of the year.
You’ll notice — like every year — I like the favorites in the opening week.
Last Week: N/A
Kent State (+14.5) at Illinois (Fri.)
Most will be automatically down on the Illini because, well, they’ve already fired their head coach. However, Bill Cubit takes over with lots of head coaching experience and they return a quarterback in Wes Lunt who may be the Big Ten West’s best signal caller. This offense can score and this team could reach a bowl. Prediction: Illinois -14.5
Podcast: Week 1 Preview w/ Rece Davis
Michigan State (-17.5) at Western Michigan (Fri.)
I love rowing my boat and the job P.J. Fleck has done at WMU, both on the field and recruiting. But this Spartans team is another beast and the crowd will be mostly green and white despite the locale. Take Sparty to make a statement in a warm-up for Oregon. Prediction: Michigan State -17.5
Louisville (+10.5) vs. Auburn
The Cardinals have some nice pieces on defense and Bobby Petrino on offense. But this team is replacing a ton from last year and is trying to mesh a lot of new faces into key roles. Doing that against the SEC front-runner and elite Playoff contender is extremely dangerous. Jeremy Johnson, Will Muschamp and Carl Lawson will debut in style. Louisville can’t score with War Eagle. Prediction: Auburn -10.5
Wisconsin (+12) at Alabama
The Badgers defense is legit behind coordinator Dave Aranda, but the UW offense will have to find balance if it wants to move the ball on arguably the best defensive front in the nation (which it won’t be able to do). The talent, experience and coaching differential is vast despite the national stature of Wisconsin. Prediction: Alabama -12
College football’s 2015 season officially arrives in Iowa City Saturday as the Big Ten West Division's Iowa Hawkeyes play host to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and STATS FCS preseason No. 2 Illinois State Redbirds in a game most pundits will be looking past as the collegiate season opens across the country.
Don't let the lack of enthusiasm or coverage of this game fool you. If Iowa was looking to end it's lackluster performances in recent season openers against FCS teams, it certainly chose the wrong horse for this contest. Illinois State is coming off a record 13-win season, which ended in the national championship game where the Redbirds finished runners-up to eventual champion North Dakota State by a score of 29-27, but had a chance to win it in the final minute and couldn't get it done.
Iowa on the other hand has lost five of its last seven games, dating back to the Oct. 18, 2014 contest at upstart Big Ten East Division rival Maryland. In last season's home opener for the Hawkeyes, they needed an 88-yard drive with just under seven minutes to play to hold on to beat Illinois State's fellow FCS and MVFC member and in-state rival Northern Iowa 31-23.
Expect both teams in this contest to battle for pride, as Iowa has no interest in starting another season on the ropes, while the Redbirds feel they can compete with anyone and hope to send a message to their upcoming FCS opponents.
Iowa and Illinois State have never met on the football field.
Illinois State at Iowa
Kickoff: 12 p.m. EST (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network & BTN2Go
Three Things to Watch
1. How Will Iowa's Offense Perform Under C.J. Beathard?
The Hawkeyes enter the 2015 season without their offensive statistical leaders in passing yards, rushing yards or receptions for the first time since 2004. Their lone offensive statistical leader to return is WR Tevaun Smith, who led the Hawkeyes with a career-high 46 catches for 596 yards in 2014. More importantly Junior QB Beathard is making just his second career start as a Hawkeye, with the only other start coming in a 24-10 win at Purdue in 2014. But that doesn't mean he hasn't shown he can perform. Entering the game as backup in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl against Tennessee, Beathard completed 13-of-23 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for a career-high 82 yards on just eight carries. These are statistics that ultimately earned him the starting job over former QB Jake Rudock, who transferred to Michigan after losing out to Beathard in spring practice. Watch for Beathard to do considerably more with what he's been handed than Rudock was able to get done in 2014 behind a much more experienced group of players.
2. Does Illinois State's FCS Division Status Really Matter?
At least on paper, the Redbirds enter this game as the prohibitive favorite. They return 11 starters from a team that finished a field goal and two minutes shy of the FCS national championship in 2014. And four of those returning starters have been named preseason FCS All-Americans. Their offense is led by former Indiana transfer senior QB Tre Roberson and junior RB Marshaun Coprich, who combined to help Illinois State set 16 school single-season offensive records in 2014. In their lone games against a shared opponent, Iowa struggled to hold off Northern Iowa in the final minutes 31-23, while the Redbirds lost to the Panthers by a wider margin of 42-28. And while Iowa is 12-0 against FCS opponents in its history, the Hawkeyes have struggled to break open those games before being able to put away their lower division rivals. Look for Iowa to capitalize on Beathard's considerably stronger arm and come out fast and hard on offense to set the tempo early, unlike past games where the Hawkeyes waited until the fourth quarter to preserve close wins.
3. Which Defense Steps Up?
Last year, Iowa's defense allowed an average of 344.2 yards per game, while the Redbirds fared just slightly worse at 345.5. The Hawkeyes averaged 28.2 points per game in 2014, the Redbirds 38.3. When taking into account the Iowa's lost offensive productivity on Iowa's side of the ball, compared to the Redbirds who return 98.9 percent of their firepower, you'd have to give the edge here to Illinois State. But statistics can often be deceiving, as they are in this case. The Hawkeyes competed in the much stronger and more physical Big Ten, where defense has traditionally won games. While the Redbirds have a deep roster with a great deal of talent, it has come against considerably less talented or well-coached opponents.
Look for Iowa's bigger and more physical defense to hold Illinois State scoreless for much of the first half. On offense, give the edge ever so slightly to the Hawkeyes as well, behind the potent throwing-rushing ability of new signal-caller Beathard. The Hawkeyes simply have too much size for the Redbirds and will eventually wear them out three downs at a time.
Prediction: Iowa 38, Illinois State 21
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a native Iowan currently living in Los Angeles. A University of Iowa graduate, Boleyn is a Hawkeye fanatic and former contributing writing for The Daily Iowan. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.
Losing in the final seconds is never easy, it's even worse when the referees can't get their act together and spot the ball correctly.
In Thursday's game between Colorado and Hawaii, the refs had problems throwing and catching the ball to one another as precious time ticked off the clock. Colorado trailed 28-20 with about 12 seconds to go, which is usually enough time for another play, unfortunately the refs were ready to get out of there.
Hawaii obviously went on to win, 28-20.
With the college football season now upon us, it seems like the perfect time to give a sneak peek at who I see being the top 10 NFL Draft-eligible prospects entering the 2015-16 season.
This list came to fruition from many hours of tape study and does not factor in any possible character concerns. With that said, some honorable mentions are Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin, Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, Alabama defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson, Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, and USC safety Su'a Cravens.
1. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Smith has tremendous size, speed, and athleticism while at the same time being highly intelligent on the field. Smith finished last season with 112 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. On tape Smith can do it all, stop the run, play on the inside or the outside, while also having the ability to drop back and make plays in coverage. Smith is a special talent and will be a thrill to watch this college football season.
2. Joey Bosa, DL, Ohio State
Had Bosa been draft eligible in 2015, he may have been the first defensive player off the board. He may not be a once in a generation like talent that some have caked him up to be, but he has all the tools; prototypical size, good speed, and great athleticism. He slots in as a defensive end or tackle but probably best suited as a 3-4 defensive end. Bosa recorded 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss as a true sophomore while showing, at times, purely dominating ability. He plays the game with such determination and tenaciousness that he made for a clear choice here.
3. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Hargreaves is without a doubt the top cornerback in college football with the talent and ability to be a top five pick in next year's draft. Although Hargreaves' size isn't anything spectacular, it's serviceable and what he lacks in that area he makes up for with outstanding instincts superior ball skills, and pure lockdown ability. Hargreaves exceeds all expectations in press coverage and has no trouble playing off either. Hargreaves led the SEC last season with 13 pass breakups and also recorded three interceptions, all while demonstrating his aggressive, confident playing style. I have full confidence that he'll truly be the next great corner to arise from the ranks of college football.
4. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
Tunsil is a former five-star recruit from Lake City, Florida. Much like Notre Dame tackle prospect Ronnie Stanley he has the prototypical height and bulk to be a cornerstone tackle at the next level (6-5, 305). In addition Tunsil has great length and unquestionable athleticism for the position. Tunsil's biggest strength is his ability in pass protection, utilizing his clean footwork, length, and excellent anchoring ability to fend off pass rushers. Despite his size, Tunsil can really bend well and is very technically sound when it comes to hand usage. Tunsil has been a starter for Ole Miss since the first game of his true freshman season and has only given up two sacks in two seasons, in a conference many people refer to as the best in the country.
5. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
Ramsey has been a do it all player during his time with Seminoles, playing numerous secondary positions while in Tallahassee. Last season Ramsey recorded two interceptions, 12 pass breakups, 97 tackles, and 9.5 tackles for a loss. In 2013, Ramsey became the first true freshman to start at cornerback for the Seminoles since “Primetime” Deion Sanders.
6. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
7. Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State
Brissett comes in having the prototypical size for the quarterback position (6’4”, 231 lbs) while in addition also has an great arm which allows him to make all of the throws. His true strength lies within the pocket, but he has shown time and time again that he’s a threat outside of the pocket. In only one season as the Wolfpack’s starting quarterback, he threw for 2,606 yards and 23 touchdowns while limiting his interceptions down to 5. It wasn’t always easy going for Brissett in 2014 due to a poor Wolfpack offensive front, which in many games left him fending for his life more often than not. There's no doubt in my mind that if he has a big year in 2015 he will be highly coveted by NFL teams come May.
8. Andrew Billings, DL, Baylor
Billings has outstanding quickness which allows him to penetrate and make plays, in addition he also moves really well laterally and is incredibly light on his feet for someone his size (6’2”, 310 lbs). Billings has tremendous strength, but he also does a really good job keeping his pad level low. Billings has some serious upside and should be very entertaining this college football season.
9. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Myles Jack is an absolute jack of all trades for the Bruins. He's been a big time playmaker on both sides of the ball for the Bruins at running back and linebacker. Jack's an explosive athlete that comes in at 6'1", 232 lbs. He plays with unmatched passion for the game as well as aggression. He's extremely physical and excels at stopping the run. Jack has 25 starts at linebacker over his first two seasons and one at running back. He has 163 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and 10 rushing touchdowns in two seasons at UCLA. At this point in time, Jack is one of my absolute favorite players to watch in college football
10. Dadi Nicolas, EDGE, Virginia Tech
Nicolas is a very athletic pass rushing prospect, with great explosion and bending ability. Despite his biggest knock being his size (6’4”, 236 lbs), Nicolas has tremendous upside once he fills out his frame and adds on bulk and strength. Nicolas has supreme quickness off the ball while in addition showing incredible speed. Over the past two seasons for Virginia Tech Nicolas was able to rack up 12.5 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss. While still somewhat raw as a pass rusher, Nicolas is a fun player to watch and once he figures things out, watch out.
— Written by Rob Donaldson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An NFL Draft analyst and writer for drafbreakdown.com, Donaldson also recently founded his own site, OnTheClockFB.com, and also pays careful attention to his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes and Pittsburgh Steelers. Follow him on Twitter @RobDonaldsonOTC.
Heading into the season the hot seat was as hot as any for Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. That seat hit a boiling point of no return last week, just one week prior to the first game of the season for Illinois. With Beckman losing his job amid controversy, Illinois looks to regain the focus on the field with Bill Cubit taking over as interim head coach with the Illini preparing to open the season Friday night against Kent State. Illinois has shown some signs of progress on the field and hopes to put the distractions behind them out of the gate.
Kent State at Illinois
Kickoff: 9 p.m. (Friday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How easily does Illinois move past the off-field distractions?
Losing your head coach a week before the start of the college football season surely has to have some impact on Illinois. Even if the removal of Tim Beckman is seen by many as a reprieve, the transition happening so quickly and so close to the start of the year presents some unforeseen concerns. Bill Cubit takes over as the interim head coach, and with no other changes to the coaching staff it would appear everything else should be fairly stable. Still, Cubit is now given some more tasks in addition to preparing the offensive game plan. Now he will be tested on some defensive situations and special teams work. How he handles it and how the players rally behind him will determine what level of success the Illini can have out of the gates.
2. How efficient is Illinois QB Wes Lunt?
Injuries turned what could have been a promising season for the former Oklahoma State quarterback into a bit of a mess. If healthy, Lunt has a chance to be one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He will play behind an experienced offensive line, with three returning starters on his throwing side, but Illinois replaces both starts on his blind side. Quick passes will be the key for Lunt.
3. Does Kent State find an offensive flair?
Kent State’s offense was nowhere to be found a season ago and the offensive line has to replace three starters. Getting things off on the right foot may prove difficult, but having Trayion Durham back should add some muscle to the ground game. Kent State’s running game may have lost some sizzle with Dri Archer moving on, but the Golden Flashes can bring some thunder on the ground if Durham is having an impact.
Despite the negativity surrounding the program leading up to the first kickoff, Illinois looks to be a solid pick in this game. Wes Lunt could turn in a good performance to calm the nerves of the Illini faithful, and Cubit seems prepared for this opportunity in front of him. It may not be pretty, but Illinois gets it done to open the season.
Prediction: Illinois 26, Kent State 13
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
Maryland welcomes Richmond to College Park for Saturday’s season opener. Richmond, an FCS member, rolls into Byrd Stadium ranked No. 18 in the FCS Coaches Poll, after posting a nine-win 2014 season that ended with a loss to Coastal Carolina in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
In 2014 Maryland finished third in the Big Ten East behind Ohio State and Michigan State, and played in its second consecutive bowl game. The Terrapins haven’t lost a home season opener since 1997 and will look to push their all-time record to 13-5-1 against the Spiders.
Richmond at Maryland
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Maryland -19
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Caleb Rowe See Action at QB?
A few people were surprised to see Maryland junior quarterback Perry Hills tabbed to replace the departed C.J. Brown as a starter. Hills was thrown into action last season when Brown and current backup Caleb Rowe were lost to injury. Hills played in three games for the Terrapins in 2014 and passed for 86 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts. In 2012 he started seven games as a freshman and became the first freshman quarterback since 1999 to open the season as a starter. Rowe appeared to have a firm grip on the backup role to Brown last year before an ACL tear in an October practice prematurely ended his season. If head coach Randy Edsall gives Rowe a good number of snaps Saturday, it could mean that he’s not shutting the door completely on Rowe’s chances to eventually start at the position.
2. Can Maryland’s Efficient Offense Keep it Up?
The disparity in talent levels between Maryland and Richmond is quite glaring, but it will be interesting to see if Maryland can pick up where it left off last year in offensive efficiency as a large part of Maryland’s success in 2014 was attributed to the Terrapins’ red zone efficiency rate. In Maryland’s 35 trips to the red zone last season, it scored 24 touchdowns and 11 field goals for an eye popping 91-percent score rate.
3. Can William Likely Carry the Defense?
Maryland junior William Likely returned a kickoff 100 yards in last year’s Foster Farms Bowl matchup against Stanford. He’s a pretty good defensive back, too. His nine pass deflections and six interceptions — which tied for first in the conference — in 2014 earned him first team All-Big Ten honors from coaches. He also added 83 tackles, the fourth highest amount on the team. Likely will be tasked Saturday with helping new defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski implement a new 4-3 defensive scheme, and offsetting the loss of seven defensive starters.
This is the type of game that has given Maryland trouble in the past. But that shouldn’t be the case Saturday, even though Richmond is a formidable FCS opponent. Edsall appears to have Maryland on the upward trajectory and while the final score isn't likely to be a blowout, the Terrapins should control this one from start to finish.
Prediction: Maryland 34, Richmond 17
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
Corvallis became the nexus for some of the most unusual twists and turns in the offseason coaching carousel. It started with long-time head coach Mike Riley bolting Oregon State for Nebraska and ended with the Beavers bringing in former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen to take over the program.
Andersen and his staff inherit an Oregon State team in full rebuild mode. The Beavers stumbled to a 5-7 finish in 2014 after losing six of their final seven games. Oregon State has enough pieces to work with on offense and defense to defy dismal preseason predictions. Andersen showed his capability for turning programs around during his stint at Utah State from 2009-12.
This marks the first meeting between Oregon State and Weber State and the Beavers will be heavy favorites. The Wildcats have won a total of six games over the last three seasons and are still a season or two away from being one of the better Big Sky Conference teams in FCS.
Weber State at Oregon State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Friday)
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback platoon
Andersen is bucking conventional wisdom by deploying two quarterbacks to run the Oregon State offense. Freshmen Seth Collins and Marcus McMaryion will both get snaps behind center and earn a chance to show they have the skills to succeed Sean Mannion. Both are dual-threat quarterbacks with big-play ability. Andersen noted there is zero separation between Collins and McMaryion coming out of fall camp. Both players should see plenty of time against Weber State and both will benefit from a veteran offensive line anchored by Outland and Lombardi Trophy candidate Isaac Seumalo.
2. Building a better defense
Aggressive hard-hitting defense could be a trademark for Oregon State in a short time. New defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake brings a track record of success to the Beavers. He oversaw a Utah defense in 2014 that led the nation in sacks and ranked among the top FBS teams in several other key categories. Sitake has some promising talent to work with in his first year. Jaswha James, in particular, should wreak havoc all over the field from his hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position. Justin Strong could enjoy a breakout season in the secondary after tallying 56 tackles as a nickel back in 2014.
3. Youthful Wildcats
Second-year coach Jay Hill, who coached with Andersen and Sitake at Utah, has committed to build Weber State without relying on tons of junior college transfers. That means the Wildcats have a roster filled with sophomores and juniors who will play big roles. Leading rusher Zach Smith returns after gaining 742 yards on 129 carries last season and the junior anchors a deep backfield in 2015. Cam Livingston is a capable threat at receiver after tallying 856 yards on 57 catches a year ago. Jadrian Clark enters the season as the starting quarterback after starting the final five games last fall.
Oregon State will likely struggle to finish above .500 in Andersen's first season, but the Beavers will be competitive with most teams. Beating a rebuilding Weber State squad should not be a problem. The Wildcats have not defeated an FBS opponent since beating Nevada 47-30 in 1993 and simply don't have enough talent to hang with Oregon State for four quarters.
Prediction: Oregon State 42, Weber State 14
— Written by John Coon,who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
For two years in a row now, Alabama's starting quarterback job has been hot topic No. 1 throughout August's preseason practices.
With Jake Coker, the guy many figure to get first crack under center this Saturday when No. 3 Alabama meets No. 20 Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, set to begin his final season at Alabama, there's a good possibility the Crimson Tide could be dealing with a third-straight starting quarterback quandary next fall.
Yes, it's beginning to feel like an annual preseason storyline now, but headline-making quarterback battles haven't always consumed Augusts in Tuscaloosa. In the post-Bear Bryant era, which began in 1983, there have been a number of seasons in which Alabama coaches, players and fans knew exactly who the guy under center would be when the season got under way.
And those other seasons? Yes, there have been several of those too during the post-Bear Bryant era — 2014 and 2015 being two of those. So where do Alabama's preseason quarterback battles of 2014 and 2015 rank among the other speculation-laden preseason quarterback battles that have taken place in Tuscaloosa since Alabama's legendary coach with the houndstooth hat called it a career?
Glad you asked.
Here's my top 10:
1. Andrew Zow vs. Tyler Watts, 2001
As far as preseason Alabama quarterback battles in the post-Bear Bryant era, the most hotly-contested, most heavily-debated, most scrutinized and the one most filled with mystery and speculation has to be the Tyler Watts-Andrew Zow duel in 2001. First-year Alabama coach Dennis Franchione apparently made his pick during fall camp, but the former TCU head man was completely tight-lipped about it, fueling all sorts of predictions among Bama fans, most of whom had sided with one or the other of the two passers. The drama stretched right on up to kickoff of the season-opener against UCLA at Bryant-Denny Stadium and finally ended when Watts trotted out for Alabama's first offensive series against the Bruins.
2. AJ McCarron vs. Phillip Sims, 2011
Both AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims were big-time, highly recruited QBs when they signed with Alabama, and when Greg McElroy finished his career at the Capstone following the 2010 season, the battle — and the debate — between McCarron and Sims was on. The competition between the two candidates was extremely tight. Even multiple weeks of fall camp couldn't separate the two in the eyes of Nick Saban and his coaching staff. It wasn't until both guys had the chance to perform in the season opener that McCarron inched ahead and seized the job.
3. Blake Sims vs. Jake Coker, 2014
All the early signs pointed to Florida State transfer and super-hyped Jake Coker winning the Alabama quarterback job for the 2014 season, but Blake Sims, who looked unimpressive in the spring, upped his game during Bama's 2014 fall camp and surprised everyone by beating out Coker. Sims went on to prove his fall camp emergence was no fluke, leading Alabama to an SEC championship and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoffs.
4. Jake Coker vs. Cooper Bateman vs. Alec Morris, 2015
For the second year in a row, Jake Coker found himself entrenched in a highly publicized, intensely speculative quarterback battle throughout fall camp in 2015. This time his primary challengers were the highly athletic Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris, who probably had the best grasp of the Alabama offense. Morris seemed to gain a little momentum for the job midway through camp, but Coker seemed to be back in the lead, slightly ahead of the surging Bateman, by the close of camp.
5. Jay Barker vs. Brian Burgdorf, 1994
A late-season knee injury shelved starting QB Jay Barker near the end of the '93 season, and when his backup, Brian Burgdorf, turned in an MVP performance in the 1993 Gator Bowl, the debate on who should be Bama's signal-caller in '94 heated up. In fall camp, Barker, who hadn't exactly wowed fans with his play up to this point in his career, ultimately held off Burgdorf to remain Bama's starting quarterback heading into the '94 season. Barker went on to prove Gene Stallings made the right choice at QB by turning in a senior season to remember. The Trussville native finished fifth in Heisman balloting in '94 and earned the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation's top senior quarterback.
6. Greg McElroy vs. Star Jackson, 2009
Greg McElroy came out of the spring with the lead, but many expected redshirt freshman Star Jackson, a prized prospect when he signed with the Tide in '08, to potentially overtake McElroy during fall camp. That never happened. McElroy, despite being viewed as less physically talented than Jackson, held on to the job, went into the season as the clear starter and proceeded to lead the Tide to its first national championship in 17 years.
7. David Smith vs. Jeff Dunn vs. Vince Sutton, 1988
Jeff Dunn went into spring drills with the lead at quarterback but an injury to both him and fellow QB challenger Vince Sutton allowed David Smith, who had started some in '87, to get more reps in the spring. All three guys, all of whom had seen action in '87, seemed to be in the picture when Bama's '88 fall camp opened, but Smith, the less heralded of the three and a former walk-on, eventually secured the job.
8. Mike Shula vs. Vince Sutton vs. Hugh Smith vs. Gene Newberry vs. Paul Fields, 1984
Mike Shula had the lead in the spring, but when he went down with a broken leg during spring drills that opened the door for several other candidates. Highly touted freshman Vince Sutton turned out to be Shula's primary competition, and both guys ended up sharing time under center during the '84 season.
9. Mike Shula vs. Vince Sutton vs. Gene Newberry, 1985
Vince Sutton, who had seen a good bit of action in '84, and promising passer Gene Newberry were still in the quarterback picture when the Tide opened fall camp in '85, but Shula, who had also gained a lot of valuable playing experience in '84, held on to the No. 1 spot going into the season. The son of the NFL coaching legend solidified his job by leading the Tide to a dramatic, come-from-behind win over Georgia in the season-opener.
10. Danny Woodson vs. Jay Barker, 1991
Senior Danny Woodson and redshirt freshman Jay Barker were Alabama's leading quarterback candidates heading into the Tide's '91 fall camp, but there was no clear-cut favorite between the two. Woodson eventually got the nod over Barker to start the season, but Barker would eventually take the reins late in the regular season, beginning with the LSU game, after Woodson got suspended.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.
Each college football season starts off with less of a bang and more of a slow burn, with ranked teams rarely playing each other and few surprises. The only matchup between two ranked teams this weekend is when No. 3 Alabama faces No. 20 Wisconsin at Cowboys Stadium in the Advocare Classic (formerly the Cowboys Classic). This is just one of many efforts over the past four decades to bring a “bowl game” feel to the beginning of the college football season.
The first and longest-running of these efforts was the Kickoff Classic, which launched in 1983 at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, when defending national champion Penn State faced No. 1 Nebraska and was trounced 44-6. This occurred during the era of 11-game seasons, but the NCAA allowed teams to play a 12th game if they played in a Kickoff Classic-type game, whose legion would grow to include the Pigskin Classic, the Eddie Robinson Classic and the John Thompson Foundation Classic.
In 2002, the NCAA outlawed 12th games, thus bringing these traditions to an end. Ironically, the NCAA added a 12th game to the college football season in 2005 and since then a new breed of “Kickoff” games have emerged.
Make no mistake; these games are akin to bowl games. Some, like the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and the Advocare Classic, are annual and others, like the Allstate Kickoff in the Capitol, are one-off deals. The benefits are a potentially large payout to participating schools and national exposure albeit good or bad. The sacrifice is a home game. And like bowl games, these contests rarely live up to their hype. Here are five that did.
5. Brigham Young 14, Oklahoma 13
Sept. 5, 2009 in Arlington, Texas (Cowboys Classic)
Returning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford began his junior year facing a formidable pass rush from BYU behind an experienced offensive line. In the second quarter, Bradford had just broken Jason White’s school career passing yards record and was leading OU down the field to break a 7-7 tie when Coleby Clawson nailed him with a clean shot, spraining the AC joint in his throwing shoulder. The Sooners held a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter when BYU quarterback Max Hall hit McKay Jacobson to give the Cougars a 14-13 lead. A failed 54-yard field goal attempt by OU solidified the win and the 2009 season began with a major upset.
4. Miami 20, Auburn 18
Aug. 27, 1984 in East Rutherford, N.J (Kickoff Classic)
In Jimmy Johnson’s first game as Miami head coach, the defending national champion Hurricanes faced #1 Auburn. The game may not have been close if Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar had not thrown an interception and the ‘Canes failed on a pair of fourth downs both within the Tigers’ 15-yard. Nevertheless, Auburn led 15-14 in the third quarter, but Miami kicker Greg Cox nailed two field goals in the fourth to put the Hurricanes ahead. The win was sealed when Auburn halfback Brent Fullwood fumbled a pitch that was recovered by Julio Cortes.
3. LSU 28, Wisconsin 24
Aug. 30, 2014 in Houston, Texas (Texas Kickoff)
The Badgers held LSU to six first downs in the first half of the game and led 24-7 in the third quarter. Then the Tigers came to life with a pair of field goals at the end of the third quarter. Early in the fourth, LSU quarterback hit John Diarse with a 36-yard touchdown pass and then completed another to Trey Quinn for the two-point conversion. With 11 minutes left, Jalen Mills intercepted Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy’s pass at the LSU 47. Kenny Hilliard capped the comeback with a 28-yard touchdown run.
2. Colorado 31, Tennessee 31
Aug. 26, 1990 in Anaheim, Calif (Pigskin Classic)
The first Pigskin Classic started off sloppy but Colorado overcame three turnovers to lead the Vols 24-10 early in the fourth quarter. However, Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly responded in the fourth quarter with touchdown passes to Alvin Harper and Carl Pickens. Colorado answered but Tennessee tailback Chuck Webb ran into the end zone with 2:25 left in the fourth quarter to make the score 31-30. The Vols head coach Johnny Majors chose to tie it up and opted for the extra point. Tennessee got the ball back late and surprised the Buffaloes with a ground attack, but the Vols ran out of time on Colorado’s 16-yard line. The contest ended with the only tie in kickoff game history.
1. Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30
Sept. 6, 2010 in Landover, Md. (Allstate Kickoff in the Capitol)
The college fantasy football season is upn us! Are you ready?
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DraftKings has released their Daily Fantasy college football salaries for the week, and the experts at CollegeFootballGeek.com have hunkered down and scoured all of the data to find the best Value Plays on the docket. These are the guys poised to out-produce their DraftKings salaries this week.
Below, you will find AthlonSports.com contributor and CFG writer Todd DeVries' top picks for the early Saturday games. To see the full in-depth article, be sure to check out CollegeFootballGeek.com.
Dane Evans, Tulsa ($6700) vs. FAU
Evans could be a break out star in 2015 under new head coach, Philip Montgomery. He will be playing in a pass heavy offense and will be facing an FAU pass defense that ranked 87th in 2014. He has a stud WR in Keevan Lucas and could easily top the 300-yard mark on opening night. Expect plenty of points from Evans and the Tulsa offense.
Roc Thomas, Auburn ($4300) vs. Louisville
Thomas has been embroiled in a heated battle for the starting RB job and appears to have come out on top for the opening week. He could be overlooked because of the competition and the match up, which is exactly why he is a true “sneaky” play. Roc comes in at a really low price and could pay big dividends for DFS players in Week One.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford ($4800) vs. Northwestern
McCaffrey is an electric playmaker that is expected to be the cornerstone of the Stanford offense in 2015. He is an excellent receiving option out of the backfield which really helps his value on Draft Kings. This Cardinal could have a huge game against a potentially overmatched Northwestern defense and should exceed his low price tag in Week One.
Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska ($3900) vs. BYU
Westerkamp should play a huge role in the revamped Huskers passing game with De’Mornay Pearson-El being sidelined for up to 6 weeks with an injury. He has an incredible match up against a BYU pass defense that ranked 114th in 2014 and gives up plenty of big plays. Look for this Husker to easily exceed value in what could be a very high scoring affair.
Robbie Anderson, Temple ($3000) vs. Penn State
Anderson had 791 yards and nine touchdowns in the last nine games of 2013, but missed last year because of academic issues. He is back with the Owls and should immediately be the top target for PJ Walker. He could be forgotten about and have an extremely low ownership percentage against the Nittany Lions. He looks to be a steal at this price point.
— Written by Todd DeVries, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A pioneer of online college fantasy football strategy and advice, DeVries is the founder of CollegeFootballGeek.com and founder and Director of Writer Development for Football Nation. Follow him on Twitter @CFFGeek.
It's our first college football Saturday of the year as we dive into our selections. A reminder that you should only wager what you could afford to potentially lose and that I'm never going to go 100 percent. Handicappers should range around 55-60 percent to be considered successful and that all the good ones have losing streaks. That said, we will dip our toes in for the first week as there's no need to go hog wild when there's a full season to go.
Virginia (0-0) at UCLA (0-0)
The scene shifts to Westwood as Virginia takes on UCLA. Last year the Bruins struggled in Charlottesville on their way to a 28-20 victory in which there were multiple defensive touchdowns. This year's UCLA offense is led by freshman Josh Rosen who is highly touted, but may struggle against a Jon Tenuta-led defense. The Wahoos have a very good secondary. What they don't have is a very good offense, especially without T.J. Thorpe at WR. The Tar Heel transfer is out for this one so it weakens a WR corps that wasn't great to begin with. Any discussion of UCLA's defense begins and ends with Myles Jack, one of the best linebackers in the country. The Bruins have gone under in 13 of their last 20 Saturday games and 15 of their last 26 overall. This one should go under the total. SELECTION: Under 54
Louisiana Monroe (0-0) at Georgia (0-0)
Greyson Lambert gets the call under center for Georgia for the opener. It really doesn't matter who is the starting QB as long as they know to hand it off to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs will have one of the best running games in the country. ULM has a very good defense which returns eight starters from the 57th-ranked unit. ULM held LSU to 31 points last year in a 31-0 loss to the Tigers. The problem with the Warhawks is their lack of offense, which returns just five starters. They will find it hard to move the ball against UGA in this one. ULM has played 15 unders in their last 24 games with 13 of their last 21 unders coming on a Saturday. SELECTION: Under 54
Arkansas State (0-0) at USC (0-0)
Arkansas State is one of the favorites in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves return nine starters from an offense that put up almost 37 points per game. They are led by Fredi Knighten, Michael Gordon and J.D. McKissic. ASU's downfall was on the defensive side of the ball where they gave up 30.5 points per contest. USC, meanwhile, features Heisman Trophy sleeper Cody Kessler under center. This represents a good time for him to start putting up numbers to keep him in the mix. JuJu Smith leads the way at WR while the Trojans' defense tries to replace Leonard Williams. The Red Wolves have played 15 overs in their last 26 contests. This one should be a bit of a shootout with USC providing a boat load of the points. SELECTION: Over 66
Norfolk State (0-0) at Rutgers (0-0)
The Scarlet Knights enter year two in the Big Ten with a lot more questions then they had in year one. Rutgers has just three returning starters on the offensive side of the ball and will be without Leonte Carroo for a half for this one. Normally, you'd be concerned with a quarterback leaving a program a month before the season, but Norfolk State replaces Terrance Ervin with Florida Atlantic transfer Greg Hankerson. The Spartans return 15 starters from a pretty good FCS defense. Latrell Scott is a solid head coach. Last year, Rutgers beat Howard 38-25 at home to open up their season. This is a lot of points for them to cover so we'll take the underdog. SELECTION: Norfolk State +38
Colgate (0-0) at Navy (0-0)
It's a new era for Navy as they begin their time in the AAC with a non-conference affair on Saturday. Keenan Reynolds is back and that instantly makes the Middies a threat on offense. Reynolds has 64 career rushing touchdowns and he has Chris Swain, DeBrandon Sanders and Jamir Tillman back with him. The problem will come on the defensive side of the ball where Navy sustained several key losses including Parrish Gaines, an underrated safety. Colgate started out 4-3 last year before losing its quarterback and four of its last five games. Jake Melville put up some good stats in those seven games he played and he has John Quazza back along with several other passing options. The Raiders are replacing three of the team's top four tacklers so they may struggle with the Naval Academy's option. This is a unit that allowed 45 points to Yale, 37 to Fordham and 30 to Lehigh. SELECTION: Navy/Colgate Over 47
Maine (0-0) at Boston College (0-0)
It's a rematch of last year's BC 40-10 win over Maine. Boston College returns just three starters and is breaking in Darius Wade at quarterback. The Eagles figure to be ground and pound once again, which will play into Maine's defensive strength. This is a Black Bears team that held New Hampshire and Richmond to just 20 points each. Both teams had better offenses then BC does this season. Last year BC was led by Tyler Murphy at quarterback. This year, I think both teams play it close to the vest and struggle to score. SELECTION: Maine/BC Under 46
Savannah State (0-0) at Colorado State (0-0)
This one's going to get ugly. The Tigers have been cannon fodder for FBS opponents the last few years. In 2014, MTSU beat Savannah State 61-7 while BYU picked up a 64-0 victory. Go back one more season and the Tigers lost 66-3 to Troy and 77-7 to Miami. It should be noted that year that they also fell to Georgia Southern 77-9 the year before the Eagles joined the FBS ranks. Colorado State has 15 starters returning and will be breaking in a new QB in Nick Stevens. He's got Rashard Higgins out wide and he's one of the most underrated WRs in the country. This one will get ugly so take the Rams to roll. SELECTION: Colorado State -49
Florida A&M (0-0) at South Florida (0-0)
The Rattlers may not be the sexiest team to play on Saturday but neither is USF. FAMU has posted back-to-back 3-9 seasons, but return a lot of talent. They are going to be running a no-huddle offense with several transfers from Iowa State coming over to help. On defense Akil Blount leads a group that will have to hone in on Marlon Mack and the Bulls' running game. Last year this team struggled to a 36-31 home win over Western Carolina to open up the season. USF scored more then 20 points just twice. I think this one is a slam dunk for the road team to cover. SELECTION: Florida A&M +28
Alabama A&M (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)
This one is going to be an ugly contest on Saturday. The Bearcats are led by Gunner Kiel, who put up some good stats last season and has a lot of weapons back again this season. Alabama A&M allowed around five touchdowns per game last year to lesser competition. Cincinnati's defense can be a bit leaky themselves so a late touchdown by the Bulldogs will help push this one over the total. SELECTION: Over 57.5
* Penn State and Temple play in one of the more underrated games of the day. The Owls are considered to be sleepers across the country and have a defense that doesn't get a lot of publicity despite very good statistics. Tyler Matakevich made 117 tackles last year for a unit that was ranked fourth overall in scoring defense. Their game in Happy Valley was 6-3 at halftime in favor of the Nittany Lions. Christian Hackenberg is a very good quarterback, but could struggle if the O-line isn't better then it was last year. The under in this one was definitely a consideration.
* Southern Miss gets a chance to put themselves on the map as Mississippi State comes to town. Ironically, this is a matchup between two of the schools who showed up in my season win total article. I'm a fan of the Golden Eagles and think they keep this one closer then expected. The one thing that kept me from making this an official play is that their defense will need time to grow. While I don't believe in Mississippi State, the Bulldogs should be able to move the ball in this contest.
* Another close unofficial play was the over in the Ole Miss/UT-Martin game. The Rebels are breaking in Chad Kelly at quarterback and he'll be able to throw to Laquon Treadwell, who is back after a gruesome injury last season. The Skyhawks got blown out in both of their SEC games last year, but return a bunch of starters from an offense that scored more then 20 points in eight games in 2014. Because Ole Miss will be looking to get Kelly work, he may not leave early in a blowout.
* Keep your eye on Youngstown State potentially in the matchup with Pittsburgh. Bo Pelini leads the Penguins against a Panthers team that will be without several starters including a All-ACC WR Tyler Boyd. The team suspended him for this contest. Pitt also will be without projected starter Rori Blair as well as an offensive line that is really banged up. YSU beat Pittsburgh in 2012 and won't be too afraid in this one.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – He’s only two years into his tenure, but Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm is amid one of the craziest stretches of his football career.
And considering he played in the defunct XFL, that’s a statement.
Going back to the final two games of 2014, the Hilltoppers have won three consecutive games decided on two-point plays. First, they won on a two-point play they called in overtime — before they were required to by rule — to beat then-undefeated Marshall 67-66. Then, they stopped Central Michigan on a two-point play, one of the few big stops in a shootout in a 49-48 bowl win.
The opener against Vanderbilt was the third flavor in this Neapolitan variety pack of finishes decided on two-point conversions. Western Kentucky managed to win a defensive struggle with Vanderbilt as a former running back tackled Vanderbilt’s tight end a yard short of the goal line to preserve a 14-12 win.
The title of the most on-edge team continues for another season, and at least for September, that sets up for a wild month for the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky’s next game is against Louisiana Tech, the only team last season that truly limited Brandon Doughty, who led the nation in passing yards and passing touchdowns. And nine days after that, Western Kentucky plays Indiana, an up-tempo offensive team with a questionable defense.
“I think with our schedule this year, we may have every game like that,” Brohm said. “We’re not much better than other teams, and they’re not much better than us.”
And with Western Kentucky’s two-point conversion history, maybe that’s why the Hilltoppers knew what was coming from Vanderbilt on its last-ditch effort.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason fired both coordinators before this season, and installed himself as defensive play-caller. That seemed to work for most of the game as Vanderbilt held Western Kentucky without a touchdown for the first three quarters. The Hilltoppers had only 85 yards on their first 36 plays. They had 139 yards and two touchdowns on their next 11.
The offense, though, couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Quarterback Johnny McCrary threw two interceptions in the end zone, and a third red zone opportunity came up empty with a missed 28-yard field goal.
The final play was either a sign of preparation and composure from the Western Kentucky sideline or a sign of predictability from the Vanderbilt sideline.
The Commodores brought in former Wisconsin/San Diego State/Cal/Utah/Oregon/Fresno State coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the offense, and although he’d never called a play for Vanderbilt before Thursday, Western Kentucky knew what was coming with the game on the line.
McCrary passed to 6-5, 240-pound tight end Nathan Marcus in the flat short of the goal line. Converted running back Joe Brown, at 5-10, 190 pounds, brought him down by the legs just short of tying the game with 33 seconds left.
“They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator has run for years for two-point conversions and we had the perfect call sitting right on the flats,” said Western Kentucky linebacker Nick Holt, the son of the Hilltoppers’ defensive coordinator of the same name. “They like crossers expecting man coverage and we sat right on it. Joe Brown had a heck of a play cutting down a big, strong physical receiver.
“Offensive coaches have about 2-3-4 plays they like to run in those situations. We study that and we pick our calls depending on what formation they line up in and try and guess what they’re going to try and do.”
Western Kentucky’s opener didn’t bring the expected fireworks, scoring only 14 points after the Hilltoppers averaged 53 points over the final four last season. That’s fine.
The game still came down to a two-point conversion in which a 5-10 sophomore who played running back a year ago had to take down a 6-5 tight end in the open field.
The two-point plays might be predictable. The way Western Kentucky is finishing games these days is not.
“It’s a little old on me," Brohm said, "but fans like to watch it.”
Sure it's only the preseason, but exciting plays still happen.
In Thursday's preseason game between the Lions and the Bills, Merrill Noel blasted a one of the Lions and popped the ball loose. That's when cornerback Ron Brooks came along and took and back 81 yards for a pick-six.
Football is back! pic.twitter.com/l0Pyy80lBW— Football Replays (@FBReplays) September 4, 2015
Even for the preseason, that pick-six was still nice.
Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium is one of college football’s oldest playing venues, and after a year away due to renovations, the Bearcats are set to return to campus in 2015. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati and Under Armour unveiled a new alternate uniform on Thursday.
The red jerseys aren't drastically different, but the helmets are unique.
Needless to say, these are pretty interesting: