A year ago, Lamar Jackson was the definition of a long shot. When the curtain was raised on the college football season, Jackson was attracting no action.
The Louisville quarterback was posted at 100-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. But by the end of September, he was surrounded by hype. And, of course, he cashed on those long odds.
Jackson is not sneaking up on anyone this time around. In fact, defensive coordinators started to ambush him late last season, when the Cardinals finished with a three-game losing streak. Jackson was hammered repeatedly in a blowout loss to Houston, stunned by rival Kentucky and completely shut down in a lopsided bowl loss to Louisiana State.
The junior is expected to get his hype train back on track Saturday by lighting up Purdue in a neutral-field opener in Indianapolis. Jackson can become the first player to win the Heisman in back-to-back years since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975, and this is the launching point for his campaign to repeat.
The Boilermakers were about as bad as it gets last year, but that was last year. Purdue made a wise coaching hire in the offseason by luring Jeff Brohm, a former Louisville quarterback, to West Lafayette. Brohm, an innovative offensive play-caller, went 30-10 at Western Kentucky.
It will take some time to rebuild, but Brohm will be a difference-maker who pulls the Boilermakers out of the Big Ten cellar, where they dwell with Illinois and Rutgers.
Brohm will play two quarterbacks — David Blough and Elijah Sindelar — against the Cardinals. Blough led the Big Ten in the regular season with 3,352 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. Sindelar is a former Mr. Football from Kentucky. With talented running backs to work with, Brohm’s offense will not be one-dimensional. He also raved about the defense, which returns eight starters, during the summer.
Jackson, who accounted for 51 touchdowns last season while passing for 3,543 yards and rushing for 1,571, will hook up with top wideout Jaylen Smith and could indeed light up the scoreboard.
Not all underdogs are live. Rice, Tulsa and Utah State already have proven that. Purdue has more quarterback talent and a better coach than those three dead ‘dogs. Brohm will find ways to stay competitive with the Cardinals, so I’ll back the Boilermakers as 25-point ‘dogs. I made the line 21½.
Hunting for quality 'dogs, here are four more plays for Saturday:
* Wyoming (plus-12) over IOWA: The quarterback edge goes to the Cowboys. Josh Allen, a 6-foot-5 junior, is a high-risk, high-reward gunslinger who mirrors Brett Favre in many ways. Allen passed for 28 touchdowns with 15 interceptions last season, and he’s projected to be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. That storyline alone makes this game worth watching. There’s always a chance Allen unravels against a strong defense and the Mountain West team gets outclassed, but Wyoming looks like a live ‘dog.
The Hawkeyes will not make many explosive plays in the passing game. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is conservative by nature, and he’ll play it even closer to his sweater vest with an inexperienced quarterback. Expect the Hawkeyes to grind out an ugly win due to their physical run game led by backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler, a graduate transfer from Nevada. If the Cowboys hang close and stay within the number, it will be because Allen lives up to the hype. Iowa recently suspended star cornerback Manny Rugamba, who leaves a void in a young secondary that Allen has the arm to exploit.
* Florida State (plus-7) over Alabama: It’s always tough to bet against Nick Saban, who is 9-1 against the spread in his past 10 season openers. But the Saban factor seems to have inflated this line by about two points. The talent gap between the Crimson Tide and Seminoles is razor thin. Florida State’s defense is strong across the board, and safety Derwin James might be the best defensive player on the field.
Still, Saban has a slightly better defense. Jalen Hurts, who was one second from winning a national championship as a freshman quarterback, will be under less pressure than the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois. In my most likely scenario, Hurts is slightly better than Francois, and Alabama wins a tight game in Atlanta. In another familiar scenario, betting against Saban could prove to be a mistake.
Other plays: Ball State (plus-7) over ILLINOIS; Appalachian State (plus-14½) over GEORGIA.
* In a weekly VSiN segment, Gill Alexander, host of “A Numbers Game,” is going head to head with Las Vegas bettor Preston Johnson (@SportsCheetah) in a handicapping contest. Here are their top three plays:
Alexander: Alabama (-7), Appalachian State (plus-14½), Brigham Young (plus-14½).
Johnson: Colorado State (plus-3½), Purdue (plus-24½), California (plus-12½).