It’s late July and Skin’s got the “itch”… for football. It took seven long months for Skin to get over the Sooners' crushing defeat to Florida in the national championship game (at least enough to write this column). In the end, I guess it’s pretty tough to beat a team with Jesus playing QB.
In all seriousness, this was an offseason of perspective for Skin. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself as big a college football and Sooner fan as the next guy, but it is just a game, albeit a damn fun one. In between the endless drivel about Brett Favre (does anyone really care if he comes back?) and reruns of House (I hope he never leaves!), Skin caught the soap opera that was the SEC this summer. Watching the behavior of the conference's coaches this spring looked more like an episode of The Hills. The endless media coverage coming out of the South seems to view these childish antics as cute or funny. I was waiting for the first writer to coin the phrase “that’s just the SEC being the SEC.”
After attending two title games against SEC opponents--both played in their home states--it’s hard to view the SEC antics as cute or “boys being boys.” SEC fans wear their “passion” as a badge of honor. “We’re the most passionate fans in the country,” they proudly proclaim. And they might be correct, if passion = being an ass. I once thought that drinking myself to oblivion and dropping f-bombs at the opposing teams' fans was cool, too. When I was 18.
I know what you are thinking: “Sour grapes, Skin.” Maybe some, but there is no excuse for a Florida fan old enough to be my grandfather to offer me an unsolicited “go f- yourself.” Or for an LSU fan to talk trash to children simply because they are wearing the colors of the other team. That’s not passion; that’s pathetic. I know this isn’t indicative of all of the conference's fans and there are plenty of good, decent SEC fans out there. (This is Skin back tracking in case Mrs. Homerism reads this).
Maybe this newfound perspective means Skin is actually growing up. Anyway, on to the picks.
(Disclaimer: These aren’t Skin's favorite plays on the board. In the interest of avoiding giving you picks like Notre Dame over Nevada or Tulsa over Rice, I tried to handicap some of the bigger games coming your way this season. I’ll dazzle--or bore--you with my Navy-Buffalo pick in the regular season.)
Virginia Tech (+4) versus Alabama
*Atlanta (Georgia Dome)
Many preseason pundits like the Hokies as a top-five team this season. I’m not feeling that much love. Va. Tech seems to have what it has every season: good talent, great coaching, average league. Hence, Orange Bowl. Once again, the Hokies will have a nice defense, and their disciplined style of play rarely allows them to beat themselves. I think the Hokies will see better QB play now that Tyrod Taylor has the position all to himself. Sophomore Darren Evans doesn’t wow you with big plays but he is a solid back for Beamer to hang his hat on this season.
Last year, Alabama shot out of the gate with a big win over Clemson in the Georgia Dome. Don’t expect the same this season. Bama’s defense will be one of the best in the country, but the Crimson Tide offense loses the key pieces from a group that was suspect last season. Julio Jones is a superstar in the making, but Greg McElroy sure isn’t Joe Namath, or even John Parker Wilson. Here’s hoping McElroy can keep the signature “Bama Bangs” hairstyle alive and well in Tuscaloosa. It’s a great look, and it just wouldn’t be Alabama without it.
The Skin says: The key to beating quality SEC teams is line play. The Hokies have the horses in the trenches to get it done. Tech by 1.
Michigan State (+7) at Notre Dame
Reserve a seat for Skin on the Irish bandwagon this season. ND should be better this season, if no other reason than a pedestrian schedule--Nevada, UConn, Navy, Purdue, Washington St. The Irish should be favored in every game except for USC. It is put up or shut up time for Weis and his golden boy Jimmy Clausen. ND’s young talent will now be sophomores and juniors; Weis is out of excuses. Unfortunately for the Irish nation, this season won't be an accurate barometer of the program's improvement due to their weak schedule.
Michigan St. enters the season with many questions on offense. Gone is all-everything back Javon Ringer, who bailed the Spartans' offense out on countless occasions last season. But the cupboard isn’t completely bare at running back, as the Spartans will platoon several capable backs to replace Ringer. State also has to replace long-time starting quarterback Brian Hoyer. OU transfer Keith Nichol and sophomore Kirk Cousins will battle it out for the starting position. Skin was impressed with Nichol's physical attributes at OU. He is a mobile quaterback with a rocket arm. Expect Nichol to win the job. With a capable group of receivers returning, the Spartans passing game should be much improved. Also, Sparty's defense will be one of the best in the Big Ten.
Skin Says: The Irish haven’t exactly been unbeatable at home as of late, especially against MSU. The Leprechaun rejoices as ND pulls out a close one.
USC at California (+8.5)
Questions abound at USC this preseason. For most other programs that means a 4-6 record, but at SC that is code for Rose Bowl or BCS championship game. The Trojans lost a ton of talent to the NFL draft, but Pete Carrol’s team won't lack for players this season. On offense, USC's stable of running backs all return behind a more experienced offensive line. Damein Williams is a stud out wide. Quarterback actually may be a concern for the Trojans, though, as it appears to be a two-player battle between sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley. Both young QB will struggle some this season, at least early, which doesn’t bode well for 'SC in some tough early season matchups. The defense was decimated by departure from last season, but Taylor Mays and Everson Griffin are nice pieces to build around.
Cal returns eight starters from a defense that held opponents to just under 20 points per game last season. Syd’Quan Thompson is a lockdown corner and could be a first round pick in next year’s NFL draft. On offense, Cal might have the “Best” tailback in the country. Suprisingly, Jeff Tedford hasn’t had an all-conference caliber QB since Aaron Rodgers. I don’t think Kevin Riley is the answer, but I do think he will improve this season.
The Skinny says: This game is at Cal. Jeff Tedford is a master at scheming for opponents, and he will use Best to gash the soft spot of the Trojan D, controlling the clock. Cal’s D will be able to hold down SC offense just enough for the Bears to win the game. (Bonus: This spread will be higher by the week of the game. Cal could easily lose at Oregon the week before. The Trojans will most likely be undefeated, including a win over Ohio State.)
Florida at LSU (+11)
Ok, so I just finished ragging on both these teams and their fan bases, but Skin has to admit he will be glued to this game. (Unless, of course, OU is on at the same time.) I hate the argument often espoused by college football fans that SEC teams are somehow faster than other teams. What is the logic behind this? My favorite is “the weather is warmer, so people are more active.” If true, the real reason is that fast players are good, good programs recruit good players and there are a lot of good programs in the SEC.
Florida’s defense, particularly the front seven, present a tough matchup. They are big, physicaland quick. However, LSU is one of a handful of teams that can match Florida’s athleticism up front. I think this game will be won on the other side of the ball. Florida’s offense will lose a step without Percy Harvin. It was Harvin, not Tebow, that kept OU’s defense off balance last year. With Harvin gone, teams will be able to key more on Tebow running the ball.
Skinny says: At home in Baton Rouge, LSU will win this game straight up.
Texas at Oklahoma State (+7)
The 2009 version of the Oklahoma State Cowboys might be the best team in school history. Of course, that isn’t saying much. The Cowboy offense will be explosive behind the menage a trois of Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter, which may be the best QB-WR-RB combo in the country. OSU put up big numbers on offense last year, and you should expect more of the same this year.
The Cowboy defense was bad last year, and, again, you should expect more of the same this year. With one exception: Bill Young. Young is a good defense coordinator who ran the defense under the man who we will simply call "Bob Stoops' predecessor." Those were lean years in Norman, and Young was one of the few bright spots. Unfortunately, he won’t have much to work with this season. Still, the unit will improve.
Texas will be a BCS contender this year, but outside of Colt McCoy, the Longhorns seem to be lacking in star power at the skill positions. The Longhorns' defensive line, the strength of UT's defense in 2008, will be rebuilding this season.
The Skin says: The Cowboys are notorious for choking away big games at home. (See: Texas in 2005.) They've never beaten the 'Horns in the history of the Big 12. Call it a feeling, but I think Mike Gundy and the Cowboys get over the hump this time.