CLEMSON AT LOUISVILLE (THURSDAY 7:30ET, ESPN)
Clemson has breezed through games against two lesser foes to start the season while Louisville has struggled against better competition and finds itself 0-2. Our surprise preseason pick of the ACC at second in the Atlantic behind Florida State, Louisville still has a very good chance to win the division. However, the Cardinals will need to get back to what they do well. Forget the flashy freshman at quarterback, Lamar Jackson, or the offensive line struggles. We knew that these were question marks to start the season. But what has been surprising is how the defense has played. Despite returning the core of their front seven, particularly up the middle, Louisville has given up a yard more per rush this year than last. However, I’m not ready to give up on my prediction yet, especially considering the Cardinals have shown flashes of potential.
With Keith Kelsey moving into the starting lineup and Devonte Fields being brand new to this defense, it’s not crazy to think that this front seven is still gelling. Fortunately for the Cards, Clemson is breaking in a brand new offensive line this season, and the one experienced guy, Ryan Norton, will be out for this game. If Louisville’s defensive front can play to its potential, this is a very dangerous matchup. However, even with the loss of Mike Williams, Clemson’s wide receivers are a dangerous, deep unit that will challenge this Louisville secondary. Will Deshaun Watson have time? I don’t expect Clemson to run the ball effectively, so the pressure will be on Watson to make plays through the air.
And on the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defense and Louisville’s offense create a very unpredictable matchup given all of the relatively new faces we will see. The Tiger defense is certainly down a few notches from last year, but that isn’t saying much considering how dominant Brent Venables’ unit was. If you do not compare this defense to last year’s, you will see a very talented two-deep with a lot of potential. If you do the same thing to Louisville’s offense (you can compare them to the 2014 offense if you’d like), you have to like what you see on paper. However, with a lot of inexperience, there will be some growing pains for both of these units. If Lamar Jackson gets the start once again, he must take care of the football. We saw how well he can move the ball against Auburn, but has accounted for five turnovers in two games. Unacceptable. But with Shaq Lawson coming off the edge, I expect Petrino to give Jackson one more chance in order to utilize his elusiveness.
If Louisville’s quarterback, whoever that may be, can indeed take care of the football, look for the Cardinal defense to take advantage of Clemson’s inexperienced offensive line and kick start the rest of the season. In what should be a great home field advantage, Louisville grinds one out against Deshaun Watson and the Tigers.
LOUISVILLE 28 CLEMSON 25
GEORGIA TECH at NOTRE DAME (SATURDAY 3:30ET, NBC)
I never thought I would see the day that Notre Dame is playing in South Bend, ranked in the top 10, and playing a team outside of the top 10, and is the underdog. Malik Zaire’s injury surely has a huge part of that betting line, but Georgia Tech’s momentum carrying over from last season certainly has opponents worried.
The Jackets were a shell of their current team at the beginning of last season. The defense was porous and first year starter Justin Thomas was still learning on the job. In its first three games of 2014, Georgia Tech defeated FCS Wofford 38-19, Tulane 38-21 (Tulane averaged 16 points per game last year), and needed a miracle to beat Georgia Southern 42-38. In its last three games of 2014, Georgia Tech beat #9 Georgia 30-24, narrowly lost to #5 Florida State 35-37, and crushed #11 Mississippi State 49-34. So while we can’t tell much from the Jackets’ two blowout wins against lesser opponents, they are much better at this time of year than they were a season ago. We still need to find out just how much this defense has improved because, on paper, this is a better defense than last year.
Unfortunately, we will not get a true reading of the GT defense because it will be going up against Deshone Kizer, who is an unknown commodity himself. Like the Yellow Jacket defense, there is a lot to like on paper. Kizer is tall, strong, and has a big arm, and also has shown the confidence necessary to compete on the big stage. Who knows—this could be Cardale Jones stepping in for JT Barrett. Kizer will be fortunate to have one of the most electrifying players in the country to throw to in Will Fuller and a big offensive line to protect him. Georgia Tech’s front seven is undersized; and while it should be improved from last year, it is not an elite unit by any means. If the Irish can run the ball, Kizer has shown he can carry his own weight and the Irish will score points.
The question is: how many points? Justin Thomas is not just an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands. Most importantly, he knows how to run the spread option attack, and he believes in the system. It will be interesting to see how Brian VanGorder utilizes Jaylon Smith, who if used properly, could be the ultimate option killer. Last year, Smith lined up on the outside against Navy. As the Jackets often option off the outside backer, it will be interesting to see if Van Gorder moves him to the middle to defeat blocks and blow up the option. The Jackets often see the most success when their B-back dive is working, and freshman Marcus Marshall adds a dimension to the offense that has not been present since Jonathan Dwyer was in Atlanta: a home run threat at B-back (fullback). If the Irish cannot contain the middle of the field, it will be a long day. In a shootout, Justin Thomas’ experience wins out.
GEORGIA TECH 36 NOTRE DAME 33
NEBRASKA at MIAMI (SATURDAY 3:30ET, ABC/ESPN)
This is the first unranked game that we are previewing this season, and will be one of the very few. But anytime these two former rivals face off, it is sure to catch the national spotlight. The two programs are both intertwined through several Orange Bowl bouts and National Championship games in the 1980s and 1990s all the way up to 2001. Their paths can be traced back to the 1984 Orange Bowl, a game that shifted college football. Nebraska entered the game ranked #1 and were already receiving "greatest team ever" praise. Meanwhile, Miami was just starting to turn the corner, and this upset win - in their own stadium - entrenched them on the national map, and set up a long stretch of dominance in South Beach. 11 seasons later, Tom Osborne was still in search of his first National Title, and ironically got a rematch with the hometown Canes in the 1995 Orange Bowl (National Championship). A 4th-quarter surge replaced the dark memories of the missed 2-pointer of '83, and the Huskers won their first of three titles (in 4 seasons).
Since their meeting in the 2002 National Championship, both programs have fallen on hard times - far from their permanent spots at the Top 10 roundtable. But regardless of record or rank, when these two match up, its college football at its finest. Because with such a rare shared history of facing off on the sport's biggest stages, its more than just the current players and coaches. With the familiar block "N" on their helmets, its not just Tommie Armstrong running the read option, but also Turner Gill, Tommie Frazier, and Eric Crouch. With the orange/green "U" and their brash style and swag, its not just Raphael Kirby lining up on the other side, but also Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma, and decades of hard-hitters.
The 2015 edition lacks the National Title impact, but does feature two programs attempting to climb back to prominence. Nebraska opened up the season as victims to a last-second, game-winning passing touchdown from BYU, and took care of business last week against South Alabama. Meanwhile, this will be Miami's first true test, after tearing apart two inferior opponents. Both have improved quarterback play; young Brad Kaaya looks to take the next step, while Armstrong (despite his unorthodox form of throwing off his back foot) looks improved under Mike Riley and Danny "QB Whisperer" Langsdorf. The key to this game will be in the trenches, where Nebraska struggled to develop or establish a rushing attack against the tough BYU front. The Miami defensive front is loaded with 4-star recruits, albeit young and unproven. The Nebraska defensive line is also stout, despite the absence of walk-on hero Jack Gangwish, and the Miami front will need to give Kaaya enough time. This game got a bit nasty in the 4th quarter last season, and here in the rematch, I expect Nebraska to avenge some old Orange Bowl nightmares and deal Miami its 1st loss.
NEBRASKA 34 MIAMI 31
AUBURN AT LSU (Saturday 3:30ET, CBS)
This game was looking like one of the biggest matchups of the season until week 2 happened. Auburn needed a miracle to get past FCS Jacksonville State and LSU didn’t look as dominant as some thought they might. Okay, so the game lost some of its luster. So what? It is still a HUGE game. Auburn is undefeated and so is LSU. After this week, the winner of this game will be 3-0 and ahead of the loser of this game and the loser of Alabama-Ole Miss. That’s a nice way to start the season.
Jacksonville State racked up a good chunk of yards because they executed at a very high level. Auburn’s defense was not prepared to defend the read option, but it was not a complete defensive breakdown. Auburn’s offense was a different story. Jeremy Johnson has shown flashes of big-time potential, but he is far too inconsistent as he has not shown the ability to read defenses and has thrown wildly inaccurate throws. Gus Malzahn’s offense usually improves dramatically over the course of the season, especially with a new quarterback. However, if Johnson does not dramatically improve this week, Auburn will have no chance against a very stout LSU defense that allowed only 43 yards on 26 attempts against Mississippi State. While the Bulldogs’ offensive line lost a lot up front, allowing only 1.65 yards per attempt is great against anyone.
With this game being in Baton Rouge, LSU’s advantages are multiplied. If Brandon Harris can continue to take care of the ball and take advantage of the favorable defensive looks Leonard Fournette provides him, look for LSU to win this in a close one. Remember, it's never as good or as bad as it seems. These are still two very good teams.
LSU 25 AUBURN 20
STANFORD AT USC (Saturday 8:00ET, ABC)
This early-season showdown certainly lost some hype in the opening hours of the season as Northwestern completely shut down the Stanford attack and upset the ranked Cardinal. Northwestern, a preseason bottom-tier Big Ten team, out-rushed Stanford by a total of 225 yards to just 85. Kevin Hogan attempted 35 passes! That is not Stanford Football, and the scoreboard reflected it, as they mustered just 6 points. It was the first time in the David Shaw era that his team was held to single-digits -- the previous low came against this very Trojan defense in last season's Pac-12 opener. This year's USC team is much stronger, and is actually our pick to win the league and earn a Playoff bid. It is Year 2 under the Sarkisian staff, an elite QB returns, and the talented roster is expanded to add much-needed depth in 4th quarters. It is hard to find a weakness on this USC roster, and they stack up well again here. Yes, they opened up the season with two cupcakes, but they at least took care of business and looked like a Top 5 or Top 10 team (easier said than done, right Auburn?)
As Northwestern ran for 225 yards and wore down this younger Stanford unit, I see more of the same here. Center Max Tuerk may just be the nation's best, and is flanked by a line that returns completely intact from 2014. Behind him is a strong duo of backs in Justin Davis and Tre Madden, who is back healthy from injury and looks like his old dynamic self. Stanford's mantra has been 'run the ball, stop the run' but I do not see either happening Saturday night. Once the ground game disappears, Kevin Hogan has trouble winning games on his own, and is not built for typical Pac-12 shootouts. Look for USC to prove our high praise in the national spotlight here.
SOUTHERN CAL 30 STANFORD 17
OLE MISS AT ALABAMA (SATURDAY 9:15ET, ESPN)
I wonder which game Nick Saban has circled on his calendar this year after last year’s loss in Oxford. On one hand, upsets happen and Ole Miss isn’t a traditional rival for Alabama. One-sided rivalries can only spawn so much hatred, especially on the winning side. On the other hand, Mississippi’s program has been on a rapid incline since Hugh Freeze’s arrival, and as a divisional opponent and border state, the Rebel program poses a threat to Saban’s empire. This is a huge game.
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly has lit the world on fire in his first two starts against Tennessee – Martin and Fresno State, averaging an insane 13.9 yards per attempt, which is 1.7 yards higher than the second best average in the country. Bo Wallace was a gritty leader with strong physical traits, but too often turned the ball over at the most inopportune times. We don’t yet know if Kelly is an improvement whatsoever over Wallace, but the eight ball is reading “looks good.” The one thing we do know is that 2015 Laremy Tunsil is much worse than 2014 Laremy Tunsil. With the news that Tunsil will not play for the third consecutive game amidst an NCAA investigation, the Rebels will be shorthanded against the nation's top front seven--not good news.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama’s offense against the Rebels’ defense will be strength on strength. Running game vs. front seven. One statistic that fascinates me about Alabama’s offense is it’s consistency from year to year. Every year, the Tide has averaged in between 35-38 points per game since the dynasty began back in 2009, spanning three offensive coordinators and six recruiting cycles. With personnel better suited for a power running game this year, Alabama will play a slower paced game this year, which should benefit the entire team. You can still expect 35-38 points per game this year, but expect a better defensive output as Alabama’s defense faced over 100 more plays in 2014 than in 2013, a result of the Blake Sims to Amari Cooper air show. Running Back Derrick Henry is off to a hot start as he is averaging over 120 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first two games. If Alabama’s offense can establish its power run game over Mississippi’s smaller, athletic front seven, this game could be won handily.
ALABAMA 30 OLE MISS 22