You know how soccer games start, with a guy softly passing the ball to his teammate at midfield? The start to the 2016 college football season isn’t going to be anything like that. It’s going to be more like one of those massive goal kicks. You know the ones, where the goalie takes a 15-yard run at the ball and boots it three-quarters of the way down the field. Forgive me for using a soccer metaphor in a college football article, but there really are some hugely interesting – and impactful – interconference games on the slate in Week 1.
Top-ranked Alabama will start the season against a PAC-12 contender (USC); last year’s national runner-up Clemson will face another SEC powerhouse (Auburn); and Charlie Strong, who starts the season on the hot-seat at Texas, will see his Longhorns get an early test from the Irish.
For bettors, these games might be the best chance to capitalize all season. At this point, no one – including sportsbooks – really knows how teams are going to perform on the field. You can juxtapose squads on paper all you want, but executing is another matter entirely.
NCAAF Week 1 Picks
(17) USC Trojans vs. (1) Alabama Crimson Tide (-10.5)
Saturday, September 3 (6:00 PM ET) at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX
It’s trial by fire for USC coach Clay Helton, who is trying to rebuild a program that has lost its identity over the last few years. Helton’s job won’t be made any easier with a first-time starter under center. Max Browne is likely to win the starting job for the Trojans, but he’s also likely to get destroyed by Alabama’s NFL-ready defensive line. I’m only half kidding with that description; Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Jonathan Allen are going to make Browne’s debut a nightmare.
The Tide will also have a first-time starter under center, whoever wins the ongoing four-man battle. But the Alabama offensive machine will be powered by the ground game, per usual, as Nick Saban looks to promising young back Bo Scarbrough to follow in the footsteps of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. And that’s bad news for a USC defense that was mediocre against the run last year (147.2 YPG, 4.2 YPC).
Alabama leads the head-to-head series five wins to two, but don’t bother with that trend since these teams haven’t met since 1985. Instead, look to logic. Can you really see a Nick Saban team getting outplay in the first game of the season by a rookie head coach and a quarterback who’s never started a game? Take Bama in a rout.
Pick: Alabama (-10.5).
(2) Clemson Tigers (-7.5) at Auburn Tigers
Saturday, September 3 (9:00 PM ET) at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, AL
After losing the National Championship game against Alabama last season, the Clemson Tigers have one goal in mind. I’ll let you guess what that is. Their quest to one-up last year’s team starts with a stiff test against a dangerous Auburn team. Despite this being a true road game for Clemson, they’re sitting as 7.5-point favorites, and I don’t think that’s high enough.
This is a horrible matchup for Auburn and new DC Kevin Steele. The team couldn’t keep opponents out of the end zone last year (surrendering 38.5 PPG) and lost three linebackers who combined for over 600 tackles last season. Now they have to start the season against a Clemson offense that will be nearly unstoppable. Led by Heisman Trophy favorite Deshaun Watson, who racked up 4,104 passing yards and 35 TDs while adding another 1,105 yards and 12 majors on the ground, Clemson is going to have its way with the Tiger D all day long.
Side note: Clemson has also won the last two meetings against Auburn, covering the spread both times.
Pick: Clemson (-7.5).
(9) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-5) at Texas Longhorns
Sunday, September 4 (7:30 PM ET) at Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, TX
Patience is wearing thin in Austin with head coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorn faithful are used to their team being a Big 12 – if not national – power. But the team has finished under .500 in each of Strong’s first two years on the job. If they stumble out of the gate this year, he’s going to find himself in search of work. That makes the season opener against Notre Dame virtually a must-win for Strong, personally.
The good news for Strong is that his team should look markedly different this year. The arrival of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert will see Texas implement a Baylor-style offense, and they have the personnel to make it work, at least on paper. Quarterback Shane Bueche has all the talent in the world and the potential to put a lot of points on the board; however, he’s also a freshman who’s coming into a high-pressure situation.
The real challenge for Texas may lie on the defensive side of the ball in this one. Brian Kelly still has to decide between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire at QB, but there’s no wrong choice to be made. Both have looked phenomenal in their time under center. The Irish only have eight returning starters, however, and no proven targets on the outside now that WR Will Fuller has moved to the NFL.
Give me the home dogs at the start of the season.
Pick: Texas (+5).
(Photo Credit: Melizabethi123 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)