2019 champion? Yes, but bet against LSU

The 2019 national champion LSU Tigers were truly a team for the ages.

Led by deadeye Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, who completed 76% of his throws for more than 5,600 yards, the Tigers steamrolled eight SEC opponents by an average of 21.6 points per game before dismantling playoff foes Oklahoma and Clemson by a combined 52 points.

But that was then, and this is now. And seasons change, especially for this year’s reshuffled LSU squad.

A record-tying 14 LSU players were selected in April’s NFL draft, with 10 picked in the first three rounds. Five Tigers heard their names called in the first round, and Burrow was the No. 1 overall selection by the Cincinnati Bengals.

But in the last few weeks, at least five Tigers have opted out of the 2020 season, including 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase and two defensive starters, tackle Tyler Shelvin and cornerback Kary Vincent Jr.

The Tigers’ losses didn’t end with player personnel. They also included two of Ed Orgeron’s top lieutenants, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing-game coordinator Joe Brady.

Aranda took the head-coaching job at Baylor, while Brady bolted to the NFL to become Matt Rhule’s offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers.

Although veteran handicappers will trust their own power ratings more than the wire-service polls, LSU is ranked No. 5 in the preseason coaches’ poll and one spot back at No. 6 in the AP poll.

The Tigers are simply not that good. For that reason, they headline my list of five bet-against teams in 2020. Here are the rest of my bet-against and bet-on teams:

 

Other bet-against teams

Texas A&M: Many in the national media are praising the Aggies, which can be more of a curse than a blessing. A&M returns 16 starters, eight on both sides of the ball. It has athletic, dual-threat senior quarterback Kellen Mond, who has 34 career starts under his belt. And things should naturally start to jell in the third year of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure. What’s not to like? First, history suggests the Aggies are more likely to be a middling team in the SEC West than a threat to Alabama’s supremacy at the top of the division. Since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2012, the Aggies’ first year in the SEC, they are just 28-28 in league action and have posted only one winning conference record during that span. Rece Davis of ESPN voted the Aggies No. 4 on his preseason AP ballot, which included all 130 FBS teams. They’re simply not that good.

TCU: Historically, Gary Patterson has been one of those rare coaches who can blend a smorgasbord of underrecruited players and spare parts into a winning collection of on-field talent. However, the results of the last two seasons have been far below his standard, and there’s little reason to think 2020 will produce anything special. The Big 12 has not been regarded as a murderer’s row in recent years. Still, TCU has won only seven of its last 18 conference games. The Frogs also received some distressing news during training camp when a COVID-19 test revealed that sophomore quarterback Max Duggan has suffered from a heart condition since birth. Duggan, who started 10 games as a true freshman, is out indefinitely, leaving former walk-on Matthew Downing as the probable starter. The Frogs also must replace five players drafted by the NFL, including two first-rounders in wide receiver Jalen Reagor and cornerback Jeff Gladney, and two others chosen among the first 96 picks.

Florida Atlantic: After winning 11 games last season, the Owls were already facing an uphill climb in 2020 as coach Lane Kiffin defected to Mississippi and the eligibility of a boatload of talent expired. Then over the summer, school officials announced that oft-troubled junior quarterback Chris Robison, a first-team Conference USA selection in 2019, was no longer with the program. With only eight starters returning and Willie Taggart in as the new coach, there should be opportunities to fade the Owls this fall.

Florida International: Like rival Florida Atlantic, the Panthers might need nameplates during early team meetings to help identify some of the new faces. Most of FIU’s losses are on offense, where quarterback James Morgan leaves as an improbable fourth-round draft choice after flourishing under Butch Davis. Other losses include the school’s top two backs, who combined for almost 1,600 yards rushing last season; three of the Panthers’ top four receivers, and three starting linemen who were part of a unit that allowed only 14 sacks one season ago. FIU is one of the least experienced teams in college football this fall.

 

Bet-on teams

Texas: Tom Herman enters his fourth season in Austin, and the Longhorn faithful have been pointing toward 2020 for a couple of years. Fourth-year senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger is a bulldog of a competitor who plays with a linebacker’s mentality and runs and throws with equal proficiency. Defensive end-linebacker hybrid Joseph Ossai had his coming-out party in Texas’ 38-10 Alamo Bowl win over Utah, erupting for three sacks and six tackles for loss. If players step up in the receiving and linebacking corps, the Longhorns could end Oklahoma’s run of five straight Big 12 titles.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops’ background is as a defensive coordinator, and it shows. Kentucky has fielded back-to-back outstanding defenses, giving up just 19.3 points, 325 total yards and 5.3 yards per play one season ago. The Wildcats welcome back seven defensive starters and should once again be stingy on that side of the ball. Senior quarterback Terry Wilson, 12-3 as a starter, has recovered from a knee injury suffered in last season’s second game and is a true dual threat after rushing for 547 yards in 2018. Kentucky has won five games outright over the last two seasons as a betting underdog.

Miami: The Hurricanes’ offense struggled mightily against the better defenses in 2019 and bottomed out in a 14-0 shutout loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. Miami had just 227 total yards and averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per play against the Conference USA opponent. The Hurricanes’ offense will show dramatic improvement this season with the arrival of Houston graduate transfer quarterback D’Eriq King, who threw for more than 4,900 yards and rushed for another 1,421 during his time in the Bayou City. And coach Manny Diaz almost has to be better in his second season patrolling the sideline than he was in his debut.

South Florida: The Bulls’ season win total dropped by three wins in each of Charlie Strong’s three seasons in Tampa. But Strong is gone, and in steps Jeff Scott, 39, who built his reputation as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. USF does have a first-time head coach whose club got in only a single spring practice and was recently picked by the media to finish 11th in the 11-team American Athletic Conference. But the Bulls do not have to win the league to qualify for a spot on this list. They simply have to be better than the four-win 2019 version of themselves. Simply substituting Scott for Strong could be enough to do that.

Brigham Young: BYU's offense was dealt a costly blow in practice Aug. 31 when senior tight end Matt Bushman, a fourth-year starter with more than 1,700 career receiving yards, suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles’ tendon injury. The 6-5, 245-pounder routinely created matchup challenges. Even minus Bushman, BYU returns lots of experience on both sides of the ball and looks particularly strong along the lines. The Cougars boast a combined 110 career starts on the offensive line and return their top five tacklers from a year ago on the defensive front. Junior quarterback Zach Wilson is essentially a third-year starter looking to rebound from a sophomore slump but exceeded expectations as a true freshman and should find his groove this fall. The Cougars also return 14 of their top 16 tacklers.

 

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