(393) UAB at (394) MIAMI
When last seen, Miami’s football fortunes had veered into Biscayne Bay, humbled as a three-TD favorite by unheralded local foe FIU, then posting a limp effort and double-digit loss at going-nowhere Duke. It got worse in the Independence Bowl, firing blanks against Skip Holtz and an aroused Louisiana Tech that pitched a 14-0 shutout, dropping the Hurricanes under .500 to 6-7. Suddenly, first-year coach Manny Diaz was feeling some heat, and he quickly pink-slipped offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Trying to reconstruct the strike force is new OC Rhett Lashlee, a Gus Malzahn disciple who spent two years perfecting the nuances of the spread for Sonny Dykes at SMU. He’ll bring that alignment from Dallas and hope Houston transfer QB D’Eriq King, who didn’t want to run Dana Holgorsen’s similar version with the Cougars last fall, can rekindle some of his 2018 magic, when he passed for 36 TDs. Technical considerations certainly favor UAB, which covered 65% of its games the last three seasons for underrated coach Bill Clark, and the Blazers worked out some kinks in last week’s opener vs. Central Arkansas. Clark returns 17 starters from last year’s bowl team. Suggest a bit of caution, as UAB has been careful not to schedule up since its return to action in 2017. But we’re not ready to stick our necks out with new-look Miami just yet.
(395) SYRACUSE at (396) NORTH CAROLINA
No. 18 North Carolina enters new territory as it starts the season ranked for the first time since 2016. Ten starters are back for an offense that increased its production from 27.4 to 33.1 points per game, largely due to a more up-tempo offense installed by coordinator Phil Longo and the play of true freshman QB Sam Howell (61%, 3651 yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs). Howell gets three of his top four RBs back as well as his entire pass-catching corps, including 1,000-yard receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Chazz Surratt, who started seven games at QB in 2017-18, returns as the quarterback of a defense that improved dramatically by reducing its points allowed by 11 ppg and total defense by 75 yards. On the other hand, Syracuse comes in with many more questions. In his fifth year as coach, Dino Babers replaced both coordinators and half his coaching staff due to performance, never a good sign. Tommy DeVito was the most-sacked QB in the Power 5 last season, and Syracuse is still moving parts around on the OL. The Orange are switching to a new 3-3-5 defensive scheme with little practice time. Babers has indicated he might slow the tempo, at least early in the season, with the lack of proven depth on the OL. UNC opened -19.5 and has already moved to -21. How will the Tar Heels respond to being one of the hunted in the ACC versus just being better than expected last season in Mack Brown’s second act in Chapel Hill?
(397) CHARLOTTE at (398) APPALACHIAN STATE
No. 22 Appalachian State posted its best season since moving to FBS in 2013 by going 13-1 last year and ending the season in the top 20, ranked 19th by the AP. But the Mountaineers again paid a price for being one of the best programs outside the Power 5 as Eli Drinkwitz took the Missouri job after one year in Boone. Appalachian State now has its third coach in three seasons as Shawn Clark, who played for the Mountaineers from 1994-98, moves up from assistant head coach. He does not inherit a bare cupboard, as seven offensive starters return, led by third-year starting senior QB Zac Thomas. Appalachian State is breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball but is still the favorite in the Sun Belt East. Charlotte’s football program has existed only since 2013 and joined FBS in 2015, finally achieving its first winning season and first bowl appearance in 2019. The 49ers were 2-5 in late October but rallied to win five in a row, including three outright wins as home underdogs against North Texas, Middle Tennessee State and Marshall. Will Healy, the second-youngest coach in FBS at 35, engineered a turnaround at FCS Austin Peay — going from 0-11 in 2016 to 8-4 in ’17 — and has Charlotte going in the right direction. Appalachian State is clearly further along, but these programs are now competing for many of the same recruits. The Mountaineers are used to having opportunities to get respect against the Power 5, but COVID-19 schedule cancellations have taken away games at Wisconsin and Wake Forest, so now they must get up for an underdog in Charlotte that should be excited for the opportunity.
(399) GEORGIA TECH at (400) FLORIDA STATE
Florida State finally parted ways with Willie Taggart, now coaching Florida Atlantic, after the Miami game last season. A 9-12 record does not cut it in Tallahassee. Enter Mike Norvell, who led Memphis to a New Year’s Six bowl but departed for Florida State before the Cotton Bowl. Norvell brings Adam Fuller with him to run the defense, which is likely to switch to a 4-3 from a 3-4. The unit will be led by a likely 2021 top-10 draft pick in DT Marvin Wilson. Kenny Dillingham, who coached with Norvell at Arizona State, runs the offense. The mercurial James Blackman has won the starting QB job but is working with his fourth OC and sixth play-caller. Norvell is also his third head coach in four years. A fair amount of talent returns, but a line that gave up 48 sacks last season will be the key. The Seminoles have a lot of potential on defense as Fuller, who improved the stop units in his last two stops at Memphis and Marshall, has a ton of high-level talent at his disposal. Georgia Tech is in Year 2 of a rebuild under Geoff Collins, who has begun to install a more pro-style attack with a program that had run the triple option for 11 years under the retired Paul Johnson. The defense brings back 10 starters plus a couple of transfers from major programs, and that unit will likely be ahead of the retooling offense. Georgia Tech starts the season immediately in the deep end of the pool with back-to-back games at Florida State and against UCF.
(403) COASTAL CAROLINA at (404) KANSAS
This is a rare potential nonconference revenge spot. Adding to the rarity is that the Power 5 school is seeking revenge over the non-Power 5 team. This rematch was scheduled to take place Sept. 26 at Coastal Carolina but was moved back to Lawrence. Coastal Carolina went to Kansas a year ago and defeated the Jayhawks 12-7 as a seven-point underdog. The Chanticleers celebrated the upset by smashing a Jayhawk pinata in the locker room. Kansas should be plenty motivated but is only a short seven-point favorite for a reason. Coastal Carolina returns eight starters on offense and was the only FBS team to get in all 15 spring practices. On the other hand, Kansas had zero spring practices. The Chanticleers return a 1,000-yard rusher, their top three receivers and an OL with over 100 combined starts. Kansas went 3-9 last season but did have its moments. The Jayhawks broke a 48-game road losing streak against FBS opponents by winning at Boston College. They also had close losses against West Virginia and Texas. Brent Dearmon took over as Les Miles’ OC in the middle of the season and improved the offense by 61 ypg. Junior Pooka Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher, returns, but Miles is still deciding about his QB. Senior Thomas MacVittie is a 6-5 pro-style passer, and junior Miles Kendrick is a 5-10 dual-threat QB. In last weekend’s short schedule, the teams that had more spring practice time showed to have the advantage. Coastal Carolina certainly carries that edge and will be going to Lawrence with the confidence that it can pull off another mild upset.
(405) WESTERN KENTUCKY at (406) LOUISVILLE
A Bluegrass State battle happens here between two teams that surpassed expectations under coaches in their first seasons at their respective programs. Both squads increased their win totals by six. Tyson Helton took over a 3-9 team from Mike Sanford and got Western Kentucky to 9-4 with a bowl-game win, while Scott Satterfield came from Appalachian State to replace Bobby Petrino and took a 2-10 team to 8-5, also with a bowl-game win. Louisville defeated WKU 38-21 last season as an 11-point favorite on a neutral field in Nashville. The Cardinals held the Hilltoppers to 43 yards rushing on 23 carries. This year Louisville will face more of a dual-threat QB as Tyrrell Pigrome, who started games in all four seasons at Maryland, has won the WKU job as a graduate transfer. Louisville certainly overachieved in Satterfield’s first season but struggled against a mobile QB in the regular-season finale against Kentucky, giving up 517 rushing yards to a unit led by receiver-turned-running QB Lynn Bowden Jr. The Cardinals will need to force Pigrome, a career 56% passer, to beat them through the air. Expectations are certainly higher in Louisville this season as eight starters return on each side of the ball. On offense, the Cardinals bring back three QBs who started games last year, but junior Micale Cunningham is the best of the bunch. Cunningham will have the support of the entire RB corps returning, plus three of his top four receivers and three starting linemen, but first-round OT Mekhi Becton is gone to the NFL. This game has the potential to be tricky for Louisville, which hosts Miami next week — and the Cardinals have over a dozen players from the Miami area. Louisville cannot get caught looking ahead.
(407) CLEMSON at (408) WAKE FOREST
When we last saw Clemson, it was having its 29-game winning streak snapped in the CFP national championship game by LSU. Clemson loses 11 starters, including two first-rounders among seven NFL draft choices. But they do not rebuild, they reload in Death Valley. Trevor Lawrence had a tough title game (18-for-37, 234 yards), and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft is out for redemption. Travis Etienne and his 2,046 all-purpose yards and 23 TDs also return. Six starters, including the entire front four, return for Brent Venables’ defense. Clemson starts its redemption tour by taking on Wake Forest, which the Tigers have thrashed by a combined 115-6 over the last two seasons. Dabo Swinney has a big number to cover by laying about 33 on the road, but he is never averse to style points. Dave Clawson was rewarded with a contract extension after Wake Forest went to its fourth straight bowl game and was ranked for the first time in 11 years. Nevertheless, it could be tough for the Demon Deacons to face Clemson and Notre Dame in the first three weeks. QB Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia and then opted out, but Sam Hartman has 10 starts over the last two seasons. But he does not have a lot of proven support. Wake returns only two starters on offense with first-team all-ACC WR Sage Surratt opting out to focus on the draft. Wake should be better on defense and is led by likely 2021 first-rounder DE Carlos Basham, a senior who had 11 sacks last year. It’s unknown how sharp Clemson will be in the opening week, but just like the last two years, Wake Forest is very much up against it.
(411) DUKE at (412) NOTRE DAME
While it’s way too soon for Heisman Trophy hype, it’s never too early to place your bets, especially if there’s an attractive long shot on the board. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book is worth a shot in the 20-1 odds range. The Fighting Irish will play a 10-game Atlantic Coast Conference schedule with one nonconference game, and the schedule should help Book make a case for the Heisman. Notre Dame is not expected to be an underdog until hosting Clemson on Nov. 7. Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the Heisman favorite, of course, and the Irish could be 7-0 when Lawrence visits. Book passed for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns with six interceptions last season, when he also rushed for 546 yards. The only other FBS quarterback to reach 2,500 passing yards, 500 rushing yards and 30 TD passes last season was Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. The Irish return seven starters on offense, so coach Brian Kelly will be aggressive and put his trust in a fifth-year senior quarterback. Notre Dame’s offense averaged 41.6 points in the final five games, including a 38-7 win at Duke. Kelly has a 33-6 record the last three years. The Blue Devils lost seven games last year, and coach David Cutcliffe is banking on quarterback Chase Brice, a transfer from Clemson, to revive Duke’s offense. After the Irish easily covered seven points on the road in last year’s meeting, it’s no surprise to see this line open at 20. Kelly and Cutcliffe are creative offensive coaches, and Book is the type of veteran quarterback who should get off to a fast start, so don’t be afraid to look Over a total of 56.
(413) UL MONROE at (414) ARMY
Army started the season with a 42-0 shutout of Middle Tennessee State as a 3 1/2-point favorite. The offense led by senior QB Christian Anderson, who takes over from two-year starter Kelvin Hopkins, piled up 340 rushing yards and converted 13 of 15 third downs. The Black Knights did what they do offensively and pounded the ball with the triple option. However, the defense was the story. The Black Knights have a new defensive coordinator in Nate Woody, who was a defensive analyst on the Michigan staff last season and served as the DC at Georgia Tech for Army coach Jeff Monken’s longtime mentor, Paul Johnson. The Army defense forced four turnovers and held Middle Tennessee to 184 yards of total offense. UL Monroe is hoping to have better success defending the Army triple option than did Middle Tennessee, but the Warhawks also travel to West Point under less-than-ideal circumstances. Defensive coordinator Mike Collins resigned last week, just 10 days before this game, so coach Matt Viator promoted LB coach Scott Stoker. The Warhawks do see this offense against Georgia Southern in Sun Belt Conference play (1-1 SU and ATS last two years) and return eight starters. Sophomore Colby Suits has been named the starter at QB. Suits has some help with four of his top five receivers back plus RB Josh Johnson, who ran for almost 1,300 yards last season. Bettors often like to bet what they saw last, and Army has gone up from -17 to -19. The Sun Belt did go 3-0 ATS last weekend.
(415) LOUISIANA at (416) IOWA STATE
Some regional Big 12 sources believe ISU could derive real benefit from not having to worry about the spirited Cy-Hawk rivalry this September against blood rival Iowa, as that annual grudge match has often turned into a lingering distraction for the Cyclones. With one date to fill on its reconfigured schedule, Iowa State found a taker in the Ragin’ Cajuns. We suspect the Cyclones could have picked an easier foe. Their Sun Belt foes are borderline dangerous, having reached their conference title game each of the last two years under third-year coach Billy Napier, a Nick Saban disciple who is even money to become the next Sun Belt mentor to move up to a Power 5 job. ULL has a lot of juice offensively, ranking in the top 10 nationally in rushing, scoring and total offense last fall and returning much of the skill weaponry. That includes dual-threat QB Levi Lewis, who threw 26 TD passes with only four picks last year, and RBs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who have combined for 5,203 rushing yards and 61 TDs in their careers. Granted, the Ragin’ Cajuns don’t often face rugged Big 12 defenses, and Iowa State’s punishing unit returns nine starters for shrewd coordinator Jon Heacock. So Cyclones junior QB Brock Purdy, on NFL radar in case he comes out early next spring, likely fires the winning scoring shots. No matter, we’d rather not lay this many points with ISU, just 3-8 in its last 11 as Ames chalk, while Napier’s Cajuns have dropped just seven of their last 25 spread decisions since early 2018 and are 7-2-1 in their last 10 as a dog.
(417) UTEP at (418) TEXAS
No. 14 Texas is never under the radar, and many pundits like their chances to get to the College Football Playoff. Sam Ehlinger has been the starting QB for the better part of 2 1/2 seasons, and he is back for his senior campaign along with his four top rushers and some talented replacements for two of the three starting receivers. The pass protection up front must improve after allowing 36 sacks, second most in the Big 12. The Longhorns will also have a new OC as Mike Yurcich, who was Ohio State’s passing-game coordinator last season after directing the Oklahoma State offense from 2013-18. Yurcich is not the only new coordinator in Austin as Chris Ash, fired last year as Rutgers’ coach, and Coleman Hutzler take over as co-DCs. Nine starters are back on that side of the ball, so improvement is expected. The good news for UTEP is that it has already matched its win total for each of the last two seasons. The bad news is the Miners will face Texas as 43-point underdogs. Dana Dimel, a longtime Bill Snyder disciple at Kansas State, waited 16 years for the opportunity to become a head coach again after a disastrous 8-26 record over three years at Houston. In his third year in El Paso, he is 3-22 and still in a massive rebuild. UTEP came back last weekend from a 14-3 deficit to score 21 unanswered points and defeat FCS Stephen F. Austin. This game is a complete mismatch, but how much will Texas want to show against an overmatched opponent with the Big 12 opener on deck at Texas Tech in two weeks?
(419) LOUISIANA TECH at (420) BAYLOR
We’ve been down this road before with decorated coordinators who get their first head-coaching gigs at major programs, and the litany of failures could take an hour to list. Enter Dave Aranda, Baylor’s new head man, who just completed a successful run as LSU’s defensive coordinator and was lured to Waco after Matt Rhule bolted for the NFL’s Panthers. But Rhule didn’t leave a full cupboard. He also took veteran DC Phil Snow, the architect of a vastly underrated Bears defense a year ago, with him to Charlotte, while nine other senior starters from that gnarly platoon also rode off into the sunset. With only two defensive starters back, Aranda will need all his defensive nous to help new DC Ron Roberts. Good news? Scrappy QB Charlie Brewer returns after keeping the Bears in the hunt for a CFP berth deep into November, and Brewer’s presence likely keeps Aranda afloat. Louisiana Tech enters the fall as something of a Conference USA mystery team, with an almost completely rebuilt defense and new coordinator in David Blackwell, who got Old Dominion playing over its head last fall. Meanwhile, Skip Holtz needs a new QB after three-year starter J’Mar Smith departed. The Bulldogs likely will lean on 1,000-yard RB Justin Henderson until one of the QBs, likely sophomore Aaron Allen, gets acclimated. But technical factors tilt us to Holtz. Louisiana Tech is 19-8-1 as a dog since he arrived in 2014 and has generally held its own vs. Power 5 foes. Meanwhile, even as Baylor revived for Rhule, the Bears are only 2-8 their last 10 as Waco chalk.
(421) UTSA at (422) TEXAS STATE
The I-35 rivalry is renewed for the first time since 2012. Texas State already has a game under its belt, a 31-24 loss to SMU, but the Bobcats were in the game all the way and easily covered as 25-point underdogs. Texas State put up 416 yards of total offense with a new QB in Memphis transfer Brady McBride. The Bobcats had major success with the running game, as they ran for 189 yards on 38 carries (5.0 ypc). Due to quarantine restrictions, the Bobcats had no tight ends on the roster and used backup linemen at the position. Predictably, the opening line has been bet to -7 from -6.5. Everything is new at UTSA starting with the coach, as Jeff Traylor comes in from Arkansas after serving as assistant head coach. Barry Lunney Jr. comes with Traylor to serve as assistant head coach/offensive coordinator. New DC Tyrone Nix has held the same job at Southern Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi and Middle Tennessee State and coached linebackers at Ole Miss last season. Traylor has yet to name a starting QB and will choose among junior transfer Josh Adkins, who started for two seasons at New Mexico State, or juniors Frank Evans and Lowell Narcisse, who split the starts last season. This is a rebuilding year at UTSA, but the Traylor hire was universally praised. He was highly successful for 15 seasons at Gilmer High School in Texas, where he won three state championships.
(427) ARKANSAS STATE at (428) KANSAS STATE
In his second season at Kansas State, coach Chris Klieman faces an uphill climb. The Wildcats are rebuilding on both sides of the ball after losing eight offensive starters and five defensive starters. Klieman went 8-5 with a team led by seniors. Now he must replace his entire offensive line, totaling 159 career starts. To make matters worse, the offseason was headlined by a player boycott and numerous players testing positive for COVID-19. While those issues seem settled, it’s fair to wonder if K-State has enough talent to overcome the distractions. An optimist will put faith in Klieman, who has a 77-11 record the last six years and led North Dakota State to four FCS national titles. Klieman showed he’s capable of magic tricks by guiding the Wildcats, 24-point underdogs, to a 48-41 victory over Oklahoma last year. But this is a different team with plenty of skeptics, and K-State is picked to finish near the basement in the preseason Big 12 media poll. Skylar Thompson, a senior dual-threat quarterback, gives the offense some continuity. The defense appears solid, led by end Wyatt Hubert and senior cornerback AJ Parker, a 24-game starter. The Wildcats will be tested immediately by an Arkansas State team that has the advantage of already playing a game. The Red Wolves were 18-point underdogs Saturday in a 37-24 loss at Memphis. Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher split playing time and combined to pass for 299 yards as the Arkansas State offense totaled 424 yards. The Wolves are getting only 11 points this week, and this has the makings of a low-scoring game as Klieman and K-State try to win with a conservative running game and an experienced defense.
(429) TULANE at (430) SOUTH ALABAMA
This could have been a celebratory event in Mobile, as South Alabama returns home after a rousing 32-21 upset win at Southern Miss, and the Jaguars get to open new Hancock Whitney Stadium. Alas, the party will be pandemic-limited to 6, 250 attendees, but South Alabama might have served notice that it is finally ready to turn the corner for third-year coach Steve Campbell in that win at Hattiesburg. Campbell, who had won big at the JC, D-II and FCS levels, didn’t forget how to coach when he took over the Jaguars in 2018. But he wasn’t left a lot to work with by predecessor Joey Jones, winning just five games across his first two years as QB production was sporadic at best. Maybe not this fall, however. Sophomore QB Desmond Trotter, who got a taste of FBS action when starting the last month of 2019, grew up overnight against Southern Miss. But even die-hard backers didn’t expect his poised showing in the opener, when he passed for 299 yards and two TDs while running for 41 yards, all while battling shoulder and hamstring problems. If Trotter is as good as he looked vs. Southern Miss, the Jaguars will have some bite. Tulane coach Willie Fritz is leading something of a renaissance in New Orleans, as the Wave have won bowls two years running, which they had never done. But Fritz is shuffling the offensive deck after almost all his top skill-position contributors departed, handing the keys to former Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard, regarded as a better runner than passer. Only three starters return from a defense that was often a liability last year. The well-regarded Fritz likely makes it work sometime this fall, but laying this sort of price on the road is a new experience for Tulane, which is just 11-43 straight up as a visitor the last eight years. Fritz will be happy with any sort of win, which might not come easily.