TEXAS at TEXAS TECH
In a season opener that resembled a scrimmage against a high school team, Sam Ehlinger passed for five touchdowns in the first half of Texas’ 59-3 victory over Texas-El Paso on Sept. 12. The senior quarterback is adapting to a new offense installed by coordinator Mike Yurcich, a former offensive coach at Oklahoma State and Ohio State. Longhorns coach Tom Herman made the necessary move to hire Yurcich, who plans to stretch the field with a vertical passing attack. Ehlinger is a bull-rush runner who has been efficient with short throws, and Texas’ offense was too conservative and predictable the last two years. Ehlinger made quick work of the outclassed Miners and completed 25 of 33 passes for 426 yards, including a 78-yard TD throw to Joshua Moore on the first play. The Longhorns had a week off to prep for Texas Tech, which had a much tougher time in its Sept. 12 opener. The Red Raiders were 40-point favorites yet barely escaped with a 35-33 win over Houston Baptist, which failed on a late two-point conversion attempt to tie. Alan Bowman passed for 430 yards for the Red Raiders, who totaled 624 yards but allowed 600 to an FCS team. In Matt Wells’ first year as coach, Texas Tech was an eight-point underdog in a season-ending 49-24 loss at Texas. The Red Raiders went 1-6 in their final seven games and finished 4-8. Wells’ second year is off to an inauspicious start, so the Circa Sports opening line of Texas -19 was reasonable. Early action on the home underdog moved the line to 16. The total is 69, and the Longhorns should do plenty of scoring. Expect Ehlinger to win a shootout in the teams’ Big 12 opener.
KANSAS STATE at OKLAHOMA
Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler appears to be the Sooners’ next great quarterback. His impressive arm strength was on display as Oklahoma rolled over Missouri State 48-0 on Sept. 12. Rattler played only two quarters and passed for 290 yards and four touchdowns. Few conclusions could be drawn from a game against a bad Bears team that went 1-10 last year, but it’s obvious Rattler has the mobility and passing accuracy to follow in the footsteps of Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield in coach Lincoln Riley’s offense. Oklahoma has its usual array of speed weapons, including running back Seth McGowan and wideout Charleston Rambo. The Sooners were stunned 48-41 last year at Kansas State, which was a 24-point underdog. This looks like a payback game. After Circa Sports opened Oklahoma -28 on Sunday, the line dropped to 26, but the public will come in on the favorite. The Wildcats’ weak defense was exposed Sept. 12 in a 35-31 loss to Arkansas State, a 14½-point underdog. The Red Wolves, who trailed 21-7 in the second quarter, piled up 489 total yards. Skylar Thompson passed for 259 yards, while K-State could not establish its running attack. The best argument for the Wildcats is their strong track record as underdogs and the ability of coach Chris Klieman to pull things together, but this is a mismatch on paper and K-State might be begging for mercy in the second half. With bigger games against Iowa State and Texas on deck, Riley will want Rattler to get more playing time in his second career start.
GEORGIA at ARKANSAS
A new face will quarterback Georgia in its season opener, and coach Kirby Smart said he plans to make a game-time decision between JT Daniels, a transfer from USC, and redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis. The Bulldogs were prepared to replace three-year starter Jake Fromm with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, who was touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate but opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. The offense returns only three starters and could struggle to get up to speed. Smart’s defense returns eight starters and will be rock solid. Arkansas will have a new quarterback and several more questions. The Razorbacks, off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, will unveil new coach Sam Pittman, a former Georgia offensive line coach. Pittman, 58, has no head-coaching or coordinator experience at the college level and is taking over a team that has lost 19 straight SEC games. The so-called Pit Boss is hoping quarterback Feleipe Franks, a transfer from Florida, can trigger an offense with eight returning starters. Rakeem Boyd, a former Texas A&M transfer who led the Razorbacks by rushing for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns last season, will be Franks’ go-to guy. It’s not a far-fetched fantasy to think Arkansas could hang around against Georgia, which opened as a 25-point favorite. The Bulldogs don’t figure to show a big-play offense right away with their new quarterbacks. If the score does get lopsided, Smart might take it easy on his former assistant and let off the gas.
FLORIDA STATE at MIAMI
Miami made a statement last weekend in prime time with an impressive 47-34 win at Louisville. The Hurricanes moved from 2.5-point underdogs to 2.5-point favorites, and the move proved correct as Miami created big plays in the second half with touchdowns of 75, 75 and 47 yards. Miami predominantly used the ground attack in its opener vs. UAB but did most of its damage through the air against Louisville. QB D’Eriq King (18 of 30, 325 yards, 3 TDs) gives “The U” a playmaker it has lacked for many years at the position. Miami generated 485 yards of total offense in just a shade under 22 minutes of total possession. The “turnover chain” also appeared as the Hurricanes forced three Louisville miscues. However, it was not all perfect on defense. Miami allowed 516 yards and was on the field for over 38 minutes. This week the No. 12 Hurricanes will be in prime time again to host rival Florida State. Miami opened at -9.5, has been bet up to double digits and is rising after last week’s offensive explosion. The Seminoles have lost three straight to Miami, and last season’s 27-10 home loss led to Florida State paying Willie Taggart $17 million to exit Tallahassee. Mike Norvell was expected to coach his first game in this rivalry, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and will not travel with the team. Deputy head coach Chris Thomsen, who coached Abilene Christian from 2005-11, will lead the operation this weekend. Florida State is 1-11 in its last 12 games against ranked opponents and lost its opener as a double-digit favorite against Georgia Tech. FSU’s defense and special teams will provide Miami its biggest challenge to date after forcing two turnovers and blocking three kicks in the opener. However, problems remain on the offensive line, and the Seminoles struggled to run the ball and protect QB James Blackman just like last season.
ALABAMA at MISSOURI
The SEC finally opens this weekend with Alabama out for redemption after missing the College Football Playoff for the first time. An 11-2 season is usually considered a fantastic year — but not in Tuscaloosa, and not when you lose to SEC West rivals LSU and Auburn. Those defeats marked the first time Alabama had lost more than one regular-season game since 2010, and the Tide responded by winning back-to-back national titles. When you look at last year’s circumstances — LSU’s best offense in a generation, Auburn’s two pick-sixes, Tua Tagovailoa’s injury — Alabama did not seem to slip that much. But the Crimson Tide did slip, particularly on defense. Injuries in the front seven were costly in shootouts against LSU and Auburn. The good news for the Tide defense is that those freshmen and sophomores are now a year older. The talent is certainly there on offense, as junior QB Mac Jones returns with some starting experience. Senior RB Najee Harris turned down the NFL draft for one last potential championship run. Despite losing two first-round WRs in Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, the Tide are still loaded at wideout with senior Devonta Smith, their leading receiver last year, and junior Jaylen Waddle. Four starters are back on the OL. Missouri is one of four SEC teams with new coaches. Eli Drinkwitz, a Gus Malzahn protege, comes to Columbia after going 13-1 in his one season at Appalachian State. Drinkwitz kept some of the defensive assistants from the Barry Odom regime. The Tigers were a top-25 defense last season and bring back seven starters. Offensively, it is unknown whether junior TCU transfer Shaun Robinson or redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak will start at QB. Only four offensive starters return, and Drinkwitz will try to commingle some transfers with his limited returning pieces. With no nonconference games on the docket, the Tigers could not have a tougher opponent to begin this offensive transition.
WEST VIRGINIA at OKLAHOMA STATE
West Virginia got an early bye weekend to prepare for Oklahoma State after winning its opener 56-10 over FCS Eastern Kentucky. Junior Jarrett Doege, who transferred in last season after making 18 starts in two years at Bowling Green, took over the QB job late last season from Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall and is now the starter. Doege was efficient in the opener, going 19-for-25 for 228 yards and three touchdowns while the rushing attack piled up 329 yards on 51 carries. Although it was against a lower level of competition, the Mountaineers must be encouraged that they look to have an improved running game since no RB gained 100 yards in any game last season and their 73-ypg rushing average was third worst in FBS. West Virginia had 11 players suspended for the opener who should be back for the game in Stillwater. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State never came close to covering as a 24-point favorite and survived late to beat Tulsa 16-7 on Saturday, dropping from 11th to 15th in the polls. Starting sophomore QB Spencer Sanders injured his right ankle late in the first half and never returned. He is still listed as questionable, and the offense struggled with just 279 yards. Star junior RB Chuba Hubbard willed the team to victory with a TD but mustered only 93 yards on 27 carries with Tulsa stacking the box since Oklahoma State was unable to pose a downfield threat without Sanders. Kasey Dunn, WRs coach at Oklahoma State since 2011, has been promoted to OC. A new coordinator always requires an adjustment, but the offense becomes easier to defend if Sanders cannot go. However, Oklahoma State is 5-0 SU and ATS in the last five seasons vs. West Virginia. The current spread is in a holding pattern, with Oklahoma State an 8.5-point favorite due to Sanders’ questionable status.
KENTUCKY at AUBURN
No. 23 Kentucky is one of the harder teams to gauge this season. Last year starting QB Terry Wilson, who returns this season, was lost with an injury after two games. After starting Troy transfer Sawyer Smith for three games, the Wildcats decided to go with receiver Lynn Bowden at QB. Kentucky became run-heavy and essentially became a service academy with triple-option-type numbers (just 57 passing ypg) over its last eight games yet still managed an 8-5 season. Bowden is gone to the NFL and Wilson is back. Wilson is an effective runner in his own right, and while Kentucky will be more balanced than in 2019, coach Mark Stoops and OC Eddie Gran could decide to keep some of the Wildcat offensive principles. No. 8 Auburn’s offense also has its fair share of question marks. QB Bo Nix’s inaugural season was considered a great disappointment. The highly touted Nix showed flashes but struggled against the better teams and now faces two nationally rated pass defenses right out of the box with Kentucky this week and Georgia next week. He also must face these defenses with four new starters on the OL. Coach Gus Malzahn brought in a new OC in Chad Morris, who was let go as Arkansas’ head coach but has extensive experience as an offensive coordinator. Morris should help Nix, but can the talent around the quarterback develop quickly enough for Auburn to be a legitimate SEC contender? Early bettors aren’t so sure, as Kentucky has seen some early action, shortened from an eight-point underdog to a seven-point dog.
ARMY at CINCINNATI
Army has started with easy wins over Middle Tennessee and UL Monroe. However, those teams looked poor in their subsequent games, and early bettors have recognized that, as Cincinnati has been bet up from an 11.5-point favorite to 14-point chalk. No. 22 Army was supposed to get BYU at home last week, which would have provided more of an indicator if the Black Knights were ready for a step up in class, but that game was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests within the BYU program. Nevertheless, this is also a step up for No. 14 Cincinnati after winning its opener 55-20 over outmanned Austin Peay. The good news for the Bearcats is that junior QB Desmond Ridder is back and healthy. Ridder was 13 of 19 for 196 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 57 yards. He was playing injured late last season, and not being at full strength likely cost Cincinnati a chance to win the AAC championship and a spot to represent the non-Power 5 conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Cincinnati seems like a prime contender to earn that spot this season. On the other hand, the Bearcats cannot look further down the schedule to showdowns with UCF and Memphis that will determine if coach Luke Fickell’s bunch can win the AAC title. Army’s triple option is the nation’s top rushing attack, averaging 388 ypg, and has looked sharp early. But Cincinnati has experience facing this offense, having played Navy twice in Fickell’s first three seasons (1-1 SU and ATS). The Bearcats’ defense returns nine starters in what is projected to be the best defense Fickell has had here.
UAB at SOUTH ALABAMA
Third-year coach Steve Campbell has been patiently upgrading South Alabama’s talent base, which had eroded when he inherited the job from Joey Jones. Campbell has won at various levels — JC at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC, Division II at Delta State and FCS at Central Arkansas — so he has proven he can coach, and it was just a matter of time before a personnel upgrade could improve the Jaguars’ fortunes. USA has been part of the Sun Belt brigade that has opened many eyes in September, stunning favored Southern Miss from Conference USA and nearly knocking off the AAC’s Tulane while handily covering both spreads. The Campbell influence is reflected in that last tidbit, with the Jaguars now on an 8-2 uptick vs. the line since early last season. South Alabama has also covered five in a row as host, including Sept. 12 vs. the Green Wave in the debut game at new Hancock Whitney Stadium, which is allowing 25% capacity to attend. It certainly looks like a better team than the one that lost 35-3 last year vs. UAB in Birmingham, partly because of improved QB play. Campbell has used Desmond Trotter, who has been battling a shoulder injury, and Chance Lovertich (326 passing yards and three TD tosses in relief vs. Tulane) as part of a sharper-edged offense. The early price on Thursday’s game flatters the Blazers. Oddsmakers seem to have caught up with shrewd coach Bill Clark, whose spread mark since UAB resurrected its program in 2017 is still a solid 26-15-1 despite only three covers in the last nine. Clark has some concerns about a rushing defense that has been pushed around, allowing almost 6 ypc against Central Arkansas and Miami. It will be tested by RB Carlos Davis (5.4 ypc) and a veteran South Alabama forward wall.
LOUISVILLE at PITTSBURGH
Many ACC insiders are still willing to give Louisville and second-year coach Scott Satterfield the benefit of the doubt after last week’s deflating home loss to Miami. The thought is that Satterfield has brought the program a long way since taking over the mess Bobby Petrino left behind in 2018, and speed bumps like the loss to the Hurricanes can be expected. Fundamentally, however, not sure the Cardinals will have the same sorts of problems with a more pedestrian Pitt offense than they did with go-go Miami. Panthers QB Kenny Pickett will not stretch the field in nearly the same way as did Miami’s D’Eriq King. Indeed, the Panthers might look like they are playing in slow motion compared with the up-tempo Canes, and Pitt scored only as much as it needed (21 points) to beat impotent Syracuse last week while not coming close to covering the 3-TD price. The Orange’s leaky line also provided a green light to Pat Narduzzi’s pass rush that recorded seven sacks, but don’t expect a similar push vs. the Cards — or success chasing down mobile QB Micale Cunningham, who has the wheels to escape trouble and will not be vulnerable in the pocket like the Syracuse QBs. Earlier mention of the failure to cover a big price last week is also relevant in regard to the Panthers. Though this matchup opened with a much shorter price, Pitt has underachieved laying points at Heinz Field since Narduzzi arrived in 2015, as the Panthers are only 7-14-1 as home chalk. And even with last week’s 47-34 loss to Miami, Satterfield is still a solid 17-9-1 vs. the line since 2018 at Appalachian State and Louisville.
TENNESSEE at SOUTH CAROLINA
The Will Muschamp watch is on at South Carolina, with agent Jimmy Sexton ready to trigger the buyout clause many thought would have been activated last December. That was after the Gamecocks stumbled down the stretch with straight-up and spread losses in five of their last six, beating only Vanderbilt and closing far short of bowl qualification at 4-8. That’s why some SEC insiders wondered if Muschamp might be cheering for a complete coronavirus shutdown in 2020 to offer another stay of execution, as he was granted a year ago based mostly on a stunning OT win at Georgia. The crossroads game for both South Carolina and Tennessee came Oct. 26 in Knoxville, a surprisingly comprehensive 41-21 Vols win that triggered a late ascent featuring six straight wins to close the season, including a Gator Bowl thriller over Indiana, while the Gamecocks’ nosedive accelerated thereafter. UT’s late-season uptick suggested a turn-the-corner moment for the program under coach Jeremy Pruitt, a Nick Saban disciple who begins his third season at Tennessee as a chic pick by some in the region to win the SEC East. While Georgia and Florida will have something to say about that, optimism abounds in Knoxville. Almost the entire offense is back, including senior QB Jarrett Guarantano and a veteran OL augmented by the addition of Georgia transfer Chad Mays. Also back are several playmakers from a defense that didn’t allow more than 22 points during the six-game streak. A curious point-spread trend in this series has the underdog covering the last eight meetings, but the combination of a short price and the Vols’ momentum from last season suggests a stronger case for UT.
FLORIDA at OLE MISS
It’s Lane Kiffin’s debut as Mississippi’s coach, and while his track record suggests he will eventually wear out his welcome and burn bridges, his honeymoon period could prove interesting. It certainly was at his last stop, FAU, which immediately upgraded upon Kiffin’s arrival in 2017 and rebounded strongly last year after a brief downturn in 2018. Kiffin is now working in the SEC and not Conference USA, but he’s familiar with the territory after a spell on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. His background also includes stints as head coach at USC and with the NFL Raiders, so Kiffin doesn’t figure to be spooked by the SEC stage. Predecessor Matt Luke didn’t exactly leave a bare cupboard in Oxford, especially lively sophomore QB John Rhys Plumlee, who led all SEC rushers in yards per game last fall with 113. That will at least give Todd Grantham’s aggressive Florida defense, which ranked seventh in scoring nationally a year ago, something to think about. It’s also Gators coach Dan Mullen’s first return to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium since leading enemy Mississippi State in four Egg Bowls, which he split, between 2009-17. Florida’s hopes are high after senior QB Kyle Trask proved a much better fit for Mullen’s creative play-calling and schemes a year ago than previous starter Feleipe Franks, who has transferred. But Mullen knows his offense needs to better balance the field than last season, when it ranked only 107th in rushing. Some point-spread dynamics include the fact that the Ole Miss team Kiffin inherits from Luke recorded a nice 8-3-1 mark vs. the number a year ago, while Kiffin himself is off a 10-4 spread record with FAU in 2019.
MISSISSIPPI STATE at LSU
Lots of mixed signals surround this intriguing opener, which even some of our most trusted SEC insiders are having a hard time deciphering. We do know the looks for each team will be a lot different from 2019, especially for LSU. Many key contributors, on the field and on the sideline, from the 15-0 romp to the national title last season have moved to the NFL or other college locales — or, like top WR Ja’Marr Chase, opted out. It’s an understatement to say new QB Myles Brennan has some big shoes to fill after Joe Burrow’s record-breaking Heisman year. Moreover, a spate of COVID-19 cases have made the LSU prognosis a bit trickier. Meanwhile, there’s a buzz in Starkville as the colorful Mike Leach has moved in from a fun run at Washington State to take over from Joe Moorhead. Continuing the new-look theme, Stanford grad transfer QB K.J. Costello is expected to be taking snaps in the Air Raid offense, which will also feature a slew of promising but untested wideouts. While Leach’s offense is apt to generate the headlines, SEC insiders are alerting to the defense now coordinated by Zach Arnett, a Rocky Long disciple who will import the unorthodox 3-3-5 alignments he used at San Diego State that could prove awkward for various SEC attacks. Even in the wondrous title campaign last year, it took the Tigers a long time to shake MSU in their battle at Scott Stadium, and Leach usually offered good value as a dog (14-8) the last five years at Washington State.