TENNESSEE AT FLORIDA (SaturDAY 3:30ET, CBS)
Tennessee fans have to feel pretty good. The overall satisfaction of having a healthy program always overrides the fleeting depression of a tough loss. Not to mention, it was a tight loss in the national spotlight to a very solid football team. I was a Joshua Dobbs fan heading into the season, but I am even more impressed with the way he has taken control of this team and given it an identity. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are a dangerous backfield duo that have already combined to score eight touchdowns through three games. However, the Tennessee offensive line has struggled to open up much room for them to work, and the Gator defense has not been an easy one to run against, allowing only 1.95 yards per carry. Unless Tennessee's receivers step up in this matchup, I can envision this matchup going like Oklahoma in the second half.
Fortunately for the Vols offense, Sterling Shepard isn't on the other side to light up the scoreboard. Will Grier has been more of a game manager to start the season, which is okay when you have a strong defense and running game. The Gators have one of those. So while Tennessee has struggled to replace AJ Johnson in the middle and Curt Maggitt is still out, I expect the Vols defense to have its way with Florida's offense. In the end, Joshua Dobbs or Jalen Hurd will make enough plays to win, as long they keep the Gators defense off the scoreboard.
TENNESSEE 28 FLORIDA 17
TCU at TEXAS TECH (SATURDAY 4:45ET, FOX)
TCU used to be a traditional offense that controlled the ball and clock, letting its stout defense win games. Heading into 2014, Gary Patterson brought in some new energy on the offensive side of the ball by appointing co-coordinators: Doug Meacham (Oklahoma State) and Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech). Cumbie played QB for the Red Raiders, and the two of them installed a similar up-tempo, air-raid attack with great success last season, finishing 2nd nationally in scoring (46.5 per game). Of course, the Texas Tech game was circled for the new coordinators, and boy did they pour it on: 82 POINTS. 82 points isn't easily forgotten by the victims, and will certainly add motivation to this Big 12 opener. Texas Tech has some momentum and belief in itself after handling a physical Arkansas team (35-24 victory). QB Patrick Mahomes is showing improvement (9 TD - 3 INT, 65% completion) and the Tech defense showed it had some fight, in going toe-to-toe with one of the more physical rushing attacks in the nation.
Yes, TCU's offense is all back and looks elite again behind a Heisman front-runner in Trevone Boykin. But the key to the success of the 2014 team was its defense, specifically the hybrid LB/DBs that make Patterson's unique 4-2-5 defense go. But the unit lost 4 All-Conference stars in the 2014 offseason, and its inexperience in the core of the defense was reason enough for me to go against the national consensus and NOT pick TCU as the league champ. Well, in just 3 weeks of game play, SEVEN additional starting defenders are either injured, off the team, or taking a leave of absence. SEVEN. We saw some cracks last week, as the defense let lowly SMU score 37 and get within a score in the 4th quarter. All it will take to run this defense to its 1st loss is an offense with a pulse. And Texas Tech has more than just a pulse, but a rapid beat filled with 82 points of revenge. In front of a raucous crowd in West Texas, I am calling for possibly the biggest upset of this young 2015 season. Guns Up
TEXAS TECH 48 TCU 45
ARKANSAS vs TEXAS A&M (SATURDAY 7:00ET, ESPN)
Bret Bielema vs. Kliff Kingsbury continues. Kingsbury not only got in his shots about how the high-flying Red Raiders defeated the smash-mouth Razorbacks, but he also gave his own "preview" of this matchup. Kingsbury, the former A&M offensive coordinator, of course picked the Aggies. But if Bret Bielema and the Hogs don't win this week, Kingsbury will not be the only one laughing after Bielema's remarks directed towards Ohio State's weak schedule.
The Aggies have been notorious for looking good out of the gates. But this year feels a bit different considering the talent on defense, especially on the edge. The duo of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall has been lethal thus far as A&M is leading the country in sacks with 15. Daylon Mack has been as good as advertised, which bodes well considering he will continue to grow at a rapid pace throughout the season. With the presence of this defensive front, Arkansas will struggle to establish its running game and Brandon Allen will be in an uncomfortable place. Allen only completed 46% of his passes on third downs last year, well outside of the national top 100 completion percents on third down.
And while a common misconception is that the Razorbacks won with their power run game last, it was actually their shutdown defense, which ranked 9th nationally. The defense is still figuring out its way without Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, and Martrell Spaight, and the evidence is in the win column. The Aggies already went through the "figuring out its way" phase last year, and their sophomores are ready to win.
TEXAS A&M 34 ARKANSAS 20
UCLA AT ARIZONA (Saturday 8:00ET, ABC)
College Gameday is in town for this Pac-12 South showdown, the first of many ranked matchups in this gauntlet of a division. Both teams are 3-0, but don't let that similarity fool you; Arizona faced zero Power 5 opponents and struggled with UTSA for the second straight season, meanwhile UCLA is battle-tested having handled Virginia and escaped another BYU miracle. Arizona QB Anu Solomon is off to a huge start (10 TD, 0 INT) but hasn't faced a defense with a pulse -- that changes Saturday as the UCLA unit is one of the league's strongest. The injury-bug hit hard so far, as 3 all-conference caliber stars are OUT (Myles Jack, Fabian Moreau, and Eddie Vanderdoes) but their vacancies will be filled with high-talent. Arizona has quite the offensive trio at the skill positions with Solomon, Nick Wilson, and Cayleb Jones, but questions arise on both lines. And that might just be the strength of this UCLA squad. I expect the Bruins to dominate both trenches, and give true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen more time in the pocket. After playing against the physical, high-intensity BYU front last week, I expect the game to seem a bit slower for the young guy. Heck, you could see his improvement from the 1st half to the 2nd half last Saturday -- look for more of that poise and momentum and a UCLA win here.
UCLA 31 ARIZONA 27
UTAH AT OREGON (Saturday 8:30ET, FOX)
Both starting quarterbacks are questionable for this Pac-12 opener and the coaches are remaining silent. Vernon Adams was playing with an injured finger on his throwing hand, and with just three weeks on campus, the offensive playbook was certainly restricted. Meanwhile for Utah, Travis Wilson is also questionable. But this is no disaster for the Utes, as the quarterbacks have rotated weekly due to a slew of injuries over the past few season. Kendal Thompson has experience in big games and will be an efficient game-manager. Devontae Booker is back to his workhorse form of 2014, already with 84 carries (3rd most in America) and should see another 30 touches Saturday. But the true storyline for this Utah team is its defensive line, one of the nation's strongest. Will All-American candidate Hunter Dimick be healthy, and if not can the line retain its elite form? Lowell Lotulelei (Star's brother) and Kyle Fitts (UCLA-transfer) are a strong enough 1-2 punch to begin with.
Should Adams not play, the keys to the offense are given to Jeff Lockie. He is more of a pocket passer than his Oregon QB predecessors, and lacks the familiar mobility. But even without an elusive signal-caller, this is still Oregon. He will distribute the ball to a deep stable of offensive weapons. Look for many quick, short passes and screens to account for this aggressive Utah D-Line. Had this game been played in Salt Lake City, I'd lean with the Utes, but the homefield edge is enough to swing this close one.
OREGON 28 UTAH 27
USC AT ARIZONA STATE (SATURDAY 10:30ET, ESPN)
What a letdown for our predicted Pac-12 champion and playoff team. USC jumped out to a 21-10 lead at home, but was unable to put the game out of reach, and then simply couldn't stop the Stanford attack. The Trojan defense that was so highly-touted, and allowed just 15 points in the first two games, was pushed around the entire second half. With such a collapse in the conference opener, you'd expect the blame to balanced on both sides of the ball, but that simply is not the case here. Cody Kessler has been nearly perfect with a 10-0 TD-INT ratio, and an incredible 79% completion rate so far. Tre Madden has returned to being the feature back, as we predicted in August. And JuJu Smith-Schuster looks to be one of the nation's best receivers. No, the fault is solely placed on the defensive unit.
Meanwhile, Arizona State opened up with a loss to Texas A&M and had trouble pulling away from FCS Cal Poly in the 35-21 win. I need to see more of this Todd Graham attack, and we will learn a lot about the Sun Devils in their conference opener. One thing to note is that they are decimated by injuries up and down the roster.
I am calling for revenge from last season's 'Hail Mary' game-winner:
USC 34 ARIZONA STATE 28