America's favorite handicapping sibling rivalry is back for the fourth consecutive year. The Skinny is looking to end his brother's spotless record and finally swig down a coveted chocotini on Christmas Day. Is 2011 his year? The journey of a thousand miles begins with this first step.
WEEK ONE--The Skinny
Every year I say it, and every year it's true. This was the worst offseason of all-time.
I'm tired of tattoo-gate, conference realignment, TV contracts, etc. But, don't confuse the problem. By most accounts, there are fewer major NCAA violations and generally better compliance than at anytime in the modern era of college football. The issues at Ohio State or USC wouldn't have been newsworthy 20 years ago.
You wouldn't know it based on the media coverage this off-season, but renegade boosters, street agents and amateur players aren't the problem. The Heroes Game is the problem. Nebraska has left behind real rivalries with OU and the rest of the old Big 12 for a rivalry created by a PR firm. College football is under attack from TV executives, conference commissioners and athletic directors who care more about their pocket books than interests of the fans, alumni, or, God forbid, the players.
A&M, I don't hate you for leaving the Big 12. I hate you for dragging this ordeal into the season. Is nothing sacred anymore? Are your egos so bruised you can't wait four more months to stick it to UT? Well, Aggies, you may not have to deal with big, bad Texas anymore, but make no mistake about it: You will be a second-tier program in the SEC.
But look on the bright side, Texas won't get all the stud players in the Lone Star State any more. I'm sure Saban, Miles and Muschamp will be happy to take them.
USF at Notre Dame (-10.5)
You can't blame Notre Dame fans for being cautiously optimistic after Year One of the Brian Kelly regime in South Bend. Irish fans have been fooled by more promising coaching starts in the past. But, the Irish faithful are never lacking for confidence and much is expected of Kelly's 2011 squad. You can always count on the "Dawgs" from Alumni Hall to ensure the Irish are overvalued at the book.
USF is supposed to be the calm before the storm under the Golden Dome, but Skip Holtz's squad is no pushover. Holtz's East Carolina teams were down right nasty on offense, and USF has plenty of weapons at Holtz's disposal, including QB B.J. Daniels. (Expect a bounce-back season from Daniels.) I like the Bulls matchup against the Irish defense. I saw ND live twice last season, and it was clear they did not have the personnel to be a great defense in '11.
Notre Dame is in a tough spot here. I never like a team with something to prove playing a lesser (at least perceived lesser) team in Week One. Add in the look-ahead factor with the Irish travelling to a night game in Ann Arbor next weekend, and it equals a tough game for ND.
The Skinny says: Notre Dame wins a close one, but don't worry, Domers, your team is better than this.
Indiana (-6) vs. Ball State
Ok, so this one is a bit of a flyer, but what game isn't in Week One?
There are a lot of similarities between these two teams coming into the season. Both teams are coming off disappointing seasons. Both teams lost some very winnable games in 2010. Both teams debut new head coaches in 2011.
I don't know much about Ball State coach Pete Lembo and his career at Elon, but he has the benefit of 17 returning starters from 2010. I am very familiar with Indiana's new dead coach, Kevin Wilson, however.
Wilson is one of my all-time favorite coaches, and I am rooting for him to succeed at IU. Maybe I'm having a hard time taking off my crimson-colored glasses, but I think Wilson will have a big impact on the Hoosiers in Year One. Wilson is one of the premiere offensive minds in the game and he has a few weapons to work with at IU. Look for Wilson and IU to abuse a weak Ball St. defense.
Skin says: I have a gut feeling that IU wins in fairly easy fashion.
Utah State at Auburn (-22.5)
As an OU fan, I remember all too well the scare the Aggies put on my Sooners in last year's season opener. Can the Aggies repeat their performance in this year's big payout game at Auburn? Most of the gambling public seems to think so, as this line has dropped significantly from its open.
Similar to the Texas-Rice game, I believe Auburn is now a good value at -22.5. Sure, the Tigers only return six starters from last year's national championship team, including the always money QB Cam Newton. But Auburn and Chizik won't be at a total loss for talent this year, as the Tigers have put considerable resources into bagging prize recruits.
Gene Chizik and Auburn bought themselves a generation of credit with Auburn fans last season. Whatever happens this season is merely a bonus, so the pressure is off.
The Skin says: Cash in on the Auburn Tigers this weekend.
Mississippi State (-29.5) at Memphis
Every amateur handicapper, as if there is any other kind, anxious to get in on the Week One action seems to be pounding the Bulldogs this week.
What's not to like? Dan Mullen's team is riding high off a 9-4 2010 campaign capped off by a 52-14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Memphis, on the other hand, was one of the worst teams in college football last season and there is little reason to expect the Tigers will be any better in 2011. Miss. St. returns the bulk of its team from last season, while Memphis returns just three starters on offense. I could continue, but I think you get picture. This is a total mismatch.
However, upon closer inspection, I think the Bulldogs might be a little overrated this season. State was 1-4 against top 25 teams last season, and I wouldn't put too much stock in the Bulldogs' blowout victory over Michigan in RichRod's swan song. Manny Diaz and his two leading tacklers are gone from the Bulldog defense this year, and there are several question marks along Dan Mullen's offensive line. Mullen has done a fantastic job rebuilding this program, but are the Bulldogs worthy of laying 30 points on the road regardless of the opponent? Expect the ultra-secretive Mullen to play this game close to the vest with a trip to Auburn looming next weekend.
Skin says: It's hard to imagine, but the smart money is on Memphis.
Rice at Texas (-25)
Coming into the week, I thought Texas might be a good value play early after last season's 5-7 (that number never gets old) debacle. But, as the line has crept up to 25, I am inclined to go the other way.
I think the massive coaching changes are a net positive for the Longhorns, despite losing Will Muschamp, but there will definitely be some growing pains under a new offensive and defensive system. Ironically, UT was a pretty veteran team last season and Mack Brown will be breaking in a lot of new faces in 2011 (again, probably a net positive, but not in Week One). By all accounts, Texas still does not have a quarterback or the number of playmakers we are used to seeing in Austin. Texas won't be down forever, but the hole Mack Brown dug in Austin is deeper than one off-season can fix.
In sticking with my Week One theme, does any team have more pressure this week than Texas? Does any player have more pressure than Garrett Gilbert? ESPN execs and 100,000 UT fans in DKR Stadium will be desperate for signs of considerable improvement. If the pressure gets to Mack Brown's squad (and it usually does) it could be ugly for Texas.
Skinny says: I like Rice with 17 returning starters, no pressure and 25 points.
Lee Greenwood Special: Army at Northern Illinois (-10)
It's slim pickings for the LGS this week. I'm not going to pretend to know much about either team. I saw Army play Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium, and the Golden Knights were thoroughly unimpressive. Army simply does not have the athletes to compete even with a MAC school like NIU. However, I like Army getting 10 points this weekend.
The Skinny says: Army's disciplined football and unusual offensive system generally create a nice advantage in Week One.
WEEK ONE--Blatant Homerism
I wish I could tell you that I've spent the entire off-season combing through research on handicapping and developing complex prediction algorithms that an MIT Ph. D might be able to follow on a good day. I have not.
You shouldn't have expected anything more of me than what you're getting. These picks are free. Stop complaining.
Western Kentucky (+20) vs. Kentucky
When oddsmakers talk about factoring public perception into spreads, they're talking about these kinds of games.
I don't know what a Hilltopper is, but to the naked eye, WKU played like dogs last season. UK had a relatively successful season for UK, qualifying for a bowl. Given that the Wildcats worked out in this game last year to the tune of 63-28, less than three touchodwns seems like a steal.
However, despite a 2-10 record, the Hilltoppers actually finished the season with a winning mark of 6-5-1 against the spread. Meanwhile, UK coach Joker Phillips essentially has to replace every skill player of merit from a year ago.
This just sets sets up as a classic underrated-overrated match-up.
BH says: Kentucky won't top the 20 points needed to cover.
Boise State vs. Georgia (+3.5)
If Boise State coach Chris Petersen could bottle up whatever his team has that helps it play so well in big games, it would fetch a decent price from embattled coaches like his counterpart on Satruday night, Mark Richt.
Yet, all good things eventually must come to an end, and I suspect Boise's run of giant-killing comes to an end Saturday night. Richt and his staff have to buy some breathing room with rabid 'Dawg fans, so the desperation factor will be weighing heavily on the Georgia sideline.
Don't really have much more than a hunch here, but I think UGa goes home the winner of a spirited contest.
BH: 'Dawgs bust the Broncos, straight up.
BYU at Mississippi (+3.5)
Looking to spread the word about their faith, the Cougars take to the road for the first two weeks of 2010 and travel to two of the sports iconic venues in Ole Miss and Texas.
First up, the Mormons invade the Nutt House. Word to the wise, BYU fans: Honor code violations will abound on Saturday in The Grove.
Even if fans can avoid going astray before the game, I expect Houston Nutt and his motley band of Rebels to violate the Cougs' honor on the field. It probably seems lame to all the haters out there, but I'll take an SEC team getting points at home in a non-conference game against a non-AQ any day of the week.
BH says: This one leaves BYU feeling Nutt-y.
Western Michigan (+14) at Michigan
MACtion typically provides a nice tune-up for the Maize and Blue in the early third of the Wolverines' schedule. Unfortunately for new head coach Brady Hoke team and his team of ill-fitting toys, WMU is no pushover.
The Broncos field an experienced team that should vie for MAC crown. Having traveled to Michigan State and Notre Dame last season, Bill Cubit's team won't be cowed by the Big House.
Meanwhile, Hoke is looking to move Michigan from a group running Rich Rodriguez's unique spread offense and 3-3-5 defense into more conventional schemes on both sides of the ball. Guys like Denard Robinson are talented, explosive players in their own right. Still, any Michigan fan who doesn't think the team will face an uphill battle in the transition is delusional.
BH says: Michigan in a squeaker.
South Florida at Notre Dame (-10.5)
Can someone please clue me in on where the love for USF is coming from?
Don't get me wrong - the Bulls had a solid 2010. They won all the games they should have and one they probably shouldn't have, Clemson in the bowl game. But you have to do better than Cincinnati and Florida Atlantic to earn the respect of BH.
The Fightin' Irish strike me as the worst kind of match-up for USF. Brian Kelly's team will put up points, and so long as B.J. Daniels is quarterbacking the Bulls, they will not.
Look for ND and its improved defense to get a statement win in the opener, inflating Irish Nation's expectations immeasurably.
BH says: Irish 30, Bulls 10.
LGS: Army at Northern Illinois (-10)
Another year, another chance to pick a service academy game every week.
The opening week's edition takes us to lovely DeKalb, Ill. The high-flyin' Huskies, led by star QB Chandler Harnish, are looking to extend their run of ruthless efficiency following the departure of cold-hearted coach Jerry Kill.
Army is, well, Army. Love the cadets, but it's hard to get excited about this team.
My money says the Dave Doeren era starts with a bang.
BH says: NIU comfortably.