MICHIGAN AT UTAH (THURSDAY 7:30ET, Fox Sports 1)
Harbaugh-mania has hit new heights (new lows?) with the announcement that Fox Sports will feature “Khaki Cam” which will be a camera always fixated on the Wolverines new head coach. Lost in all the hysteria about Michigan and Harbaugh is the fact that they are heading out West to play a Top25-caliber Utah team that is known for its physicality in the trenches. The Utes beat them last season in the Big House (26-10) and look to be stronger this season. Despite losing Hendricks Award winner Nate Orchard, the Utah D-Line looks like the Pac-12’s best, and the O-Line returns 4 starters to clear running lanes for workhorse back Devontae Booker. I expect Booker to get 30 carries, and for Travis Wilson to continue his improvements and creativity at quarterback. Further, Utah has succeeded against a host of Pac-12 quarterbacks that are much more dynamic and talented than Michigan's Jake Rudock (Iowa transfer).
Michigan has certainly recruited well under Brady Hoke, so the cupboard is by no means bare. But the question is how quickly can Harbaugh develop this talent and get it playing at top potential. A prime example of this is in the backfield with Derrick Green coming in as a 5-star recruit and failing to produce on the field. There are not many receiving threats besides Amara Darboh, but Jake Butt does provide a solid option over the middle from his tight end spot. While I see Michigan finishing with 7 wins in the Harbaugh debut, this game is not one of them.
UTAH 30 MICHIGAN 24
AUBURN VS LOUISVILLE (SATURDAY 3:30ET, Atlanta, CBS)
In 2003, Bobby Petrino’s first year at Louisville, the Cardinals averaged 34.6 points per game. Behind a breakout year from Stefan Lefors at quarterback and against weak Conference USA competition, this was good enough to rank 15th nationally. Pretty good if you ask me. But in Petrino’s second year, the offense catapulted all the way to top of the Division 1A rankings as the Cardinals averaged 49.8 points per game! After a brief stint in the NFL, Petrino returned to the college ranks to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that was best known for originating and spreading the “wildcat” fad across all levels of football. This hiring was a drastic philosophy change from the Houston Nutt regime as Petrino would be found dead before coaching a “wildcat” offense. In 2008, his first season in Fayetteville, the Hogs averaged 21.9 points per game, which was good for 91st nationally. The following year, Arkansas averaged 36.0 points per game—the 9th best offense in the country. Yes, Ryan Mallett’s skillset was often overwhelming for college defenses to prepare for as he could stretch the field better than just about anyone who has ever strapped up to play quarterback, but in 2011 the Tyler Wilson-led Razorbacks averaged 36.8 points per game. And Wilson was essentially the anti-Mallett.
Undoubtedly, Louisville is up-and-coming. While Petrino walked into a nice situation left by Charlie Strong, this year has the potential to be the best of both worlds for Cardinal fans. Strong accumulated a lot of defensive talent while here, and last year the offensive guru Petrino coached a team that often won with its nasty front seven, not its aerial assault. With players like Sheldon Rankins, James Burgess, and Keith Kelsey being joined by high-profile transfers like Devonte Fields, Shaq Wiggins, and Josh Harvey-Clemons, this defense should remain stout. And while there doesn’t appear to be a Ryan Mallett on this roster at quarterback, all three quarterbacks return from last year. Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin, and Will Gardner all won big-time games in 2014 and should benefit from another year in Petrino’s system. If we can see that second year jump in offensive production under Petrino that we’ve seen in his other two stints, this could be a dangerous team.
Unfortunately, I left out one of the biggest concerns for Louisville in my preview: the inexperienced offensive line. The mediocre 2014 O-line loses two 3rd round draft picks in Jamon Brown and John Miller. And this anticipated weakness should be exploited by what looks to be Auburn’s greatest improvement: the front seven. Well, actually, let me clarify: the front seven, coached by new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Not only do players like Montravius Adams, Cassanova McKinzy, and Kris Frost return, but Carl Lawson returns from injury and heralded recruit Byron Cowart will provide a much-needed pass rush boost. But the reinforcements don’t stop there: Georgia transfer Tray Matthews and Michigan transfer Blake Countess are both starting in the secondary, which should greatly aid this much-maligned 2014 unit. Given all of this defensive talent, Muschamp’s pedigree, and the fact that defenses are often ahead of offenses at this point of the season, I like Auburn’s defense against Louisville’s offense.
By season’s end, the Cardinal offense and Tiger defense may prove two of the better units nationally. However, in week one, all eyes will be on how new Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson fares in Gus Malzahn’s system against a very talented Louisville defense. Johnson will give Auburn fans a look not often seen from a Malzahn offense: a pro-style passer. I use “pro-style” lightly and in the same way I’d describe Jamarcus Russell. He is still athletic with a big body, but he is a truly accurate passer. Defenses will not be able to say, “We are going to make him beat us with his arm.” But the counter strategy will of course be, “We are going to make him beat us with his legs. We are not going to leave the wide receivers or running backs open on the option plays.” But with options like Roc Thomas and Duke Williams, defenses will be troubled to simply “take away” Johnson’s weapons. And if Auburn is going to win this game, the Tigers are going to need to take advantage of Johnson’s arm and the rest of the passing game because Louisville’s defensive line averages over 300 pounds per player.
I think at this point, the nation realizes Auburn is a potential National Title contender. I don’t think the nation realizes Louisville’s potential. The Cardinals received only 12 votes in the AP poll, good enough for 32nd in the country. In the end, I don’t see a weakness on Auburn’s roster like I see Louisville’s patchwork offensive line. Now, if Louisville’s QB comes out firing like Ryan Mallett, which is entirely possible, Louisville could certainly win this game and it wouldn’t be as big of an upset as people think. But for right now, I can’t pick against the Tigers and their improved defense.
AUBURN 27 LOUISVILLE 25
TEXAS A&M VS ARIZONA STATE (SATURDAY 7:00ET, Houston, ESPN)
The trend of neutral-site season openers continues here, as Arizona State and Texas A&M face off in Houston. This will be the first meeting of the programs, and expectations are rising for both teams heading into the 2015 season. ASU will again feature a Todd Graham “high-octane” offense as Mike Bercovici takes over the starting quarterback reigns full-time after filling in for the injured Taylor Kelly last season. He has a stout offensive line in front of him, but the true question mark is at receiver, where the loss of Jaelen Strong will be noticed. Leading rusher DJ Foster moved over to WR to add some play-making ability on the outsides. The ASU defense returns 9 starters and adds a talented JUCO transfer up front in Deonte Reynolds.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s young talent is starting to come of age. The Aggies have pulled off 3 straight top 10 recruiting classes, and their biggest ‘recruit’ this offseason was bringing in long-time LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis to help fix the defense. The talent is there – especially in the front seven. And of course the Sumlin offense is loaded yet again. We have Texas A&M ranked #22, which is higher than almost all preseason publications, and do not understand their unranked status in the AP Poll.
We are relatively high on both teams, and expect strong seasons from both squads after this opener. The quasi homefield advantage brings the margin closer, but Houston is no 12th Man. Arizona State wins a shootout:
ARIZONA STATE 45 TEXAS A&M 41
TEXAS AT NOTRE DAME (Saturday 7:30ET, NBC) *By Zach Sepanik
Rich traditions and powerhouse programs will meet on the gridiron when Notre Dame and Texas square off in the shadows of Touchdown Jesus on Saturday.
The matchup pits the second and third winningest programs in college football history, but the Longhorns and Fighting Irish haven’t been on the same field since the mid-90s.
“These are the kind of openers that really test you in everything that you do,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “You have to be fundamentally sound.”
The Fighting Irish had a strong finish to 2014, defeating LSU in the Music City Bowl and witnessing the emergence of junior quarterback Malik Zaire. To top things off, Kelly has doctored up one of the most experienced rosters in the country heading into 2015.
Meanwhile, the Charlie Strong era is really set to take off heading into year two of his reign as Texas head coach. The Longhorns will replace 10 starters from last season’s 6-7 team and have 24 freshman or redshirt freshman on the depth chart.
“They’ve done a great job of just working, a very young, talented group,” said Strong. “Young players, they don’t pace themselves, they just go at it, and they want to start, so they try to do everything they can to get on the field.”
The Longhorns best hope against the Irish is to attack their weak point—the defensive line. Jarron Jones tore his MCL in fall camp, NFL prospect Ishaq Williams was declared ineligible for the season, two pass-rushers transferred out and a JUCO recruit never made it to campus. Yet, the Notre Dame front is held down by seniors Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, with everyone else a sophomore or younger.
By letting senior running back Johnathan Gray loose, Texas can assert a presence and mixing in junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes’ athletic ability by allowing him to scramble could open the door to big plays. They return three starters on the line, but two true freshman will look to protect Swoopes’ blind side and create running lanes.
Once any Longhorn gets past the Notre Dame defensive line, they will have to deal with one of the most prolific linebackers in the country, junior Jaylon Smith. With all upperclassmen in the Irish secondary, Texas’ best chance to stay in the game is on the ground.
“This year we’ve been fortunate to have a little more depth on the offensive line, and that shows,” said senior center Taylor Doyle. “We’re confident, and the individuals are improving every day as well as improving as a unit.”
On offense for Notre Dame, much of Zaire’s continued development can be contributed to his dual-threat ability. After a full season of learning Kelly’s system, there is solid reason for his hype. I think he can be considered one of the strongest darkhorses for the Heisman Trophy this year.
Add the plethora of talent around Zaire and the expectations continue to mount. Junior running back Tarean Folston will be featured out of the backfield. Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, Jr., are all threats on the outside.
Last year’s Longhorn defense had far more veterans than this season’s unit. Zaire’s running ability could be the game-changer as mobile quarterbacks like Taysom Hill, Sam B. Richardson and Trevone Boykin all gave Texas fits a year ago.
“He’s much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable,” Kelly said of Zaire.
When they step on the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium, the Longhorns will have a lot of production to make up for as Swoopes won’t have his top-two receivers from last season. This is a well-picked group of athletes that Strong has assembled and he would not want to go to war with anyone else. However, the talent across the board for the Fighting Irish is dynamite.
Whether you’re a Catholic or a redneck, this will be a great game to watch. You don’t have to be either, though, as seeing these two teams on the same field is great for all of college football.
NOTRE DAME 31 TEXAS 20
Zach Sepanik will be on-site at Notre Dame Stadium, starting his 2015 tour. Follow @ZachSepanik for live updates, field-level photos, and his football analysis.
ALABAMA VS WISCONSIN (Saturday 8:00ET, Dallas, ABC)
Over the past eight years, these two programs have been paragons for success. Not only success, but consistency as well. Alabama of course has been THE model program with three national championships and one Playoff appearance. And Wisconsin has done quite well for itself, winning three Big Ten Championships, and appearing in another Big Ten Title game without changing its identity over three different head coaches. Now, the Badgers will be tested a fourth time as Paul Chryst steps in to replace Gary Andersen. Chryst will run another pro-style, run-heavy offense that Badger fans are used to seeing—he was an offensive coordinator in Madison after all—but his success is largely unknown. Chryst had mixed results at Pittsburgh as he led the Panthers in their transition from the Big East to the ACC. His offense was explosive at times with future NFLers James Conner and Tyler Boyd leading the way, and his defense was often porous without great athletes. And at Wisconsin, only having a strong running game isn’t going to cut it.
Joel Stave enters his senior season at quarterback and hopes to return to 2013 form when he completed 62% of his throws, 22 TDs, and 7.4 yards per attempt after regressing to 53%, 9 TDs, and 6.6 yards per attempt in 2014 after partially losing his job to the more athletic Tanner McEvoy. I fully expect Stave to be one of those who benefit the most from the transition to Paul Chryst despite a weaker receiving corp than he had two seasons ago. While Gary Andersen employed a pro-style system, his power running game was a little less pro-style than Paul Chryst’s balanced attack. Fortunately, Chryst won’t have to stray too far from the running game as Corey Clement is going to be an excellent replacement for Melvin Gordon, but unfortunately will not get to run behind the same offensive line Gordon did. Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan, and Dallas Lewallen are all gone from an offensive line that averaged an astounding 6.9 yards per carry. While this unit is still huge and talented, it will almost certainly take a step back this year, which isn’t saying much as 6.9 yards per carry is pretty epic.
And this new offensive line better find cohesion fast because it has to go up against the best front seven in all of football. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson, and Jarran Reed were all All-SEC performers last year, and the linebackers behind them are equally as talented. This year’s Alabama defense looks like it will return to the championship-caliber level after a two-season hiatus. While the 2013 unit was certainly good enough to win a National Title, it wasn’t at the level of the 2009, 2011, or 2012 defenses that actually won championships. With players like former number one overall recruit Da’Shawn Hand coming in off the bench, Alabama has the luxury of signing the #1 recruiting class each of the past five seasons that nobody else has. Superior talent. This defense should feast as it is going up against a relatively one-dimensional offense. And with that benefit, Alabama’s new faces on offense will have plenty of time to gel.
While we know who Wisconsin’s quarterback is and we have yet to find out who Alabama’s will be, I view these two offenses in a similar mold: unknown production at quarterback, game-changers at running back, and inexperienced, but talented offensive lines. However, Alabama has an elite defense and Wisconsin does not. Alabama has more stability in Nick Saban and its coaching staff while Wisconsin is facing a coaching change. In the end, this one is all adding up to one unsightly result:
ALABAMA 38 WISCONSIN 13
OHIO STATE AT VIRGINIA TECH (MONDAY 8:00ET, ESPN)
In the second game of the 2014 season, it was Virginia Tech that dealt Ohio State it’s first loss of the season. No one could have foreseen the growth and surge of the Buckeyes from that game on. Even after Ohio State’s championship run, the Virginia Tech loss has been pointed to and been at the root of debate, and now in the rematch Urban Meyer will have his team motivated to the max. Ohio State looks like one of the most complete teams in quite some time, as far as defending national champions go, and fittingly opens up the season as the first unanimous #1 team in preseason AP Poll history. Meanwhile Virginia Tech has one of the stronger defenses in America, and is especially elite in the secondary thanks to the CB duo of Fuller and Facyson. This strength makes the recent suspension news of Ohio State’s receiving core that much more interesting. 3 of the top 4 targets are suspended, plus another injury in the corps makes Braxton Miller a starting H-Back and poised for some touches. The quarterback battle still remains unsettled, but with JT Barrett being named a captain, it looks like #16 will get the nod over “12-gauge.” This is truly a great problem to have considering both guys would start at upwards of 120 D-1 FBS schools. Regardless of who starts under center, star RB Ezekiel Elliot is poised for a Heisman-caliber season, after growing stronger game-by-game capped off by the best individual performance in a National Championship game since Vince Young in 2005.
The suspension news certainly raises some eyebrows and narrows the gap between the two teams, but still Ohio State remains heavy favorites. Virginia Tech’s offense is simply too inept; the strength-on-strength when OSU has the ball will decide the game, but I am calling for revenge.
OHIO STATE 31 VIRGINIA TECH 17