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Houston Gamblers vs. Michigan Panthers Prediction and Preview (USFL Football)

Houston Gamblers vs. Michigan Panthers Prediction and Preview (USFL Football)

Gamblers, Panthers kick off USFL's Week 1 tripleheader on Sunday

The second game of the reinvented USFL's inaugural season pits the Houston Gamblers against the Michigan Panthers at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday afternoon. All of the USFL's games this season will be played in Birmingham, with most of them taking place in Protective Stadium, a new 47,100-seat venue in the downtown area that opened this past October and the UAB Blazers also call home.

Related: What You Need to Know About the USFL

As for this matchup, the Gamblers are led by head coach Kevin Sumlin, former Houston and Texas A&M head coach who most recently was at Arizona (2018-20), while the Panthers are under the direction of longtime NFL head coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher is arguably the most noteworthy of the USFL's eight head coaches given his 173 career wins in the NFL, but he hasn't been on the sidelines since 2016, his last season with the Los Angeles Rams (went 4-9 before he was fired).

Not much else is known about either team since this is their first game and the two squads have been together for roughly three weeks. But Fisher's Panthers have been tabbed as either the favorite or co-favorite to win the USFL championship by several betting outlets, so they will hit the field with some expectations. It also will be interesting to see how much of an impact the USFL's modified rules will have. The biggest changes impact extra points, onside kicks, and overtime, as well as the possibility of two forward passes.

Houston at Michigan

Kickoff: Sunday, April 17 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
TV: NBC/Peacock
Spread: Panthers -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Big Ten QB reunion
There's a little bit of familiarity regarding the expected starting quarterbacks for this game. When the USFL held its inaugural draft on Feb. 22, the first round was dedicated to quarterbacks. Michigan took Shea Patterson with the first pick while Houston selected Clayton Thorson at No. 5. Both Patterson and Thorson played for Big Ten programs, with Patterson starting two years for the Michigan Wolverines (after spending his first two seasons at Ole Miss) while Thorson was a four-year starter at Northwestern.

These two signal-callers faced each other once during their college careers. Patterson's Wolverines defeated Thorson's Wildcats 20-17 on Sept. 19, 2018, in a game where neither quarterback made much of a statistical impact (Patterson had 227 total yards, Thorson threw for 174 yards and was sacked six times) but didn't turn the ball over either.

After he finished at Northwestern, Thorson was a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft by Philadelphia and was on the active roster for the Giants for two games during the 2020 season, but otherwise his NFL tenure consisted of practice squad duty. Patterson went undrafted in 2020 and has been a part of the CFL for the past two years, including appearing in five games for the Montreal Alouettes last fall.

Now both get another opportunity to shine, this time in the USFL spotlight. But while both Patterson and Thorson were first-round picks, that doesn't mean they will be the only quarterbacks who take the field on Saturday. Michigan also has Paxton Lynch, the former NFL first-round pick (26th overall in 2016). Even though his two-year run in Denver consisted of a total of four starts and he's considered a colossal bust, Lynch can still be a playmaker in the USFL. Don't be surprised if Fisher uses both of his signal-callers on Saturday, especially if Patterson struggles. Meanwhile, Houston's other quarterback is Kenji Bahar, a relative unknown who put up big numbers at Monmouth, an FCS program. He spent last season as a member of the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad but was elevated to the active roster for Week 16.

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2. Will any other playmakers emerge?
The quarterbacks can't do it all themselves, and both Houston and Michigan feature some skill position players who are worth keeping an eye on. At the top of the list is Panthers wide receiver Jeff Badet. Even though he went undrafted after playing at Kentucky and Oklahoma, Badet has spent parts of the past two seasons with three different NFL teams and also played in the short-lived XFL in spring 2020. In college, Badet was known as a big-play threat as he averaged 16.5 yards per catch across his four seasons. He's also considered the fastest player in the USFL after posting a 4.27 40, although that was at his pro day back in 2018. And if Badet's speed isn't enough, Michigan also has a tall target in tight end Connor Davis, whose 6-foot-8 frame could make him an immediate weapon, especially in the red zone.

The Panthers have some Big Ten flavor in their backfield as well with running backs Stevie Scott III (Indiana) and Reggie Corbin (Illinois) both hailing from the conference. But the ball carrier to pay attention to could be Cameron Scarlett. One of the team's picks in the 10-round supplemental draft that was held on March 10, Scarlett played four years at Stanford and has since gotten a couple of opportunities with NFL teams, the most recent being a participant in the Seattle Seahawks' training camp last season. NFL Draft Bible, the official NFL draft partner of Sports Illustrated, has Scarlett ranked fourth among the running backs on USFL rosters.

On the other side, Houston's backfield could be led by Dalyn Dawkins, who appeared in four games for the Tennessee Titans from 2018-19, with former Arkansas back Devwah Whaley and former Florida Gator Mark Thompson also factoring in. Whaley and Thompson are both over 210 pounds, bringing more size to the equation compared to the diminutive (5-7, 183) Dawkins.

And while it’s even harder to get a handle on the defenses for each team, one player worth pointing out is Michigan defensive end Cavon Walker. He led the XFL with 4.5 sacks before the league shut down operations after just five games in spring 2020, and he's also made the final roster cuts for two different NFL teams.

3. Impact of the rule changes
As was mentioned earlier, one of the unique aspects of the USFL is the rule changes, which were made with the intent of increasing scoring opportunities and entertainment value.

Related: What You Need to Know About the USFL's Rule Changes

Since this is the first game for both Houston and Michigan, there could be a learning curve as it relates to the new rules, and it also will be up to the head coaches as to how aggressive they want to be when it comes to attempting a three-point conversion, an onside kick or a 4th-and-12 play to try and retain possession after a score, or attempt two forward passes in the same play.

That last rule change offers an opportunity to really open the playbook, so it will be interesting to see which team is willing to do that and how it looks. Both Thorson and Patterson are capable of making things happen with their legs, and Houston also has Tyler Palka, a wide receiver/quarterback, on its roster, so all three could potentially be involved in a play that involves two forward passes.

And while there are options for a two-point (successful play that crosses the goal line from the 2-yard line) and three-point (successful play from the 10-yard line) conversion, kickers will still be needed for the traditional PATs and field goal attempts. But what's interesting here is that as of Thursday, Michigan didn't have a kicker on its roster, only a punter (Michael Carrizosa). Will he handle both duties or is Fisher already showing a glimpse of how he'll handle the post-touchdown scoring opportunities? If anything, the USFL has to be pleased with the attention the rule changes have generated.

Final Analysis

It's difficult to handicap this game since this is the first one for a pair of teams that will be playing with some different rules and have been together less than a month. On paper, though, it appears that Michigan has an advantage at both quarterback and wide receiver. With the USFL introducing these new rules in an effort to create more scoring opportunities (and entertainment value), the safe call here would be to side with the team that has the most firepower. But that doesn't mean to expect a ton of points to be scored on Saturday either.

Prediction: Panthers 30, Gamblers 25