Big Game Hunting: Alabama-FSU, Florida-Michigan head Week 1 picks
There are two goals for “Big Game Hunting” this season. The first is to continue to deliver the most deeply insightful, uncannily accurate predictions available anywhere online or in print. OK, so we’re still working on that one.
The second goal is to narrow the scope of the column so it highlights a few more games that are close to home. That could mean big games for Notre Dame, Northwestern or (no laughing) Illinois. It certainly will prioritize the games of the year in Big Ten country. You get the picture.
So, let’s talk No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State (7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 7)!
Look, Goal No. 2 can take a hike for a week. We won’t pretend we haven’t been waiting for Crimson Tide-Seminoles — the first Week 1 matchup of top-three teams since the AP started its preseason rankings in 1950 — all offseason.
Alabama will hit the field at Atlanta’s brand-new, spectacular Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a seven-point favorite, but it’s not hard at all to envision victory for the ’Noles. Their talent clearly stacks up to Clemson’s of a year ago, and being a touchdown underdog to the Tide sure didn’t stop Deshaun Watson and his mates in the national title game.
“It’s in the rearview,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said of that stinging, last-play defeat, “but the thing about a rearview mirror is you can see it. We’re not looking back to see what’s behind us, but it motivates us.”
Both defenses could have key advantages in this one. The Tide’s typically wicked front will aim to manhandle FSU’s offensive line, which doesn’t project as a particular strength. FSU has as experienced a defense as any Top 25 team.
Meanwhile, there will be much focus on the quarterbacks — the dual-threat Hurts and FSU’s dynamic Deondre Francois — and for good reason; these are outstanding players and legit Heisman hopefuls we’re talking about. Francois could unseat Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, last season’s Heisman winner, as the top QB in the ACC. Of course, many would argue the league’s best at that position was Clemson’s Watson.
Alabama has crushed a strong list of nonconference foes in recent openers; last year’s victim was USC, by a mind-numbing score of 52-6. But not to be ignored: FSU is 9-1 against the SEC under coach Jimbo Fisher.
“We’ve just got to play a game,” Fisher said.
It’s not just any game. And it might merely be Part 1, with Part 2 coming in the playoff four months down the road. Man, all seasons should open with this big of a bang. Tide 24, ’Noles 20.
The most entertaining part of the run-up to No. 17 Florida vs. No. 11 Michigan (2:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 7): Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh’s needling of the Gators, which picks up on his offseason needling of the SEC and, well, his annoying nature in general. We say “annoying” in the nicest way possible, of course.
“When you get their roster, let me know who we’re playing,” a frustrated Gators coach Jim McElwain said after Harbaugh made a game-within-the-game of releasing info on his starters in intermittent trickles.
The 4½-point-underdog Gators have 10 players — take a bow, fellas — suspended for the opener in Arlington, Texas. That would seem to be a devastating state of affairs, though Michigan is somewhat depleted after losing a school-record 11 players to the NFL draft.
On the line: Florida’s national-best 27 consecutive season-opening victories. For Michigan to bust that streak, defensive coordinator Don Brown will have to throw a lot of nasty at gigantic redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks and hope a bunch of it sticks. Wolverines by a touchdown.
Back to Louisville’s Jackson, the No. 16 Cardinals face Purdue
(6:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox-32) in Indianapolis in what screams “mismatch” every which way. Louisville’s speed on offense will be hell on the Boilermakers, but new coach Jeff Brohm — a U of L alum — has put together a promising offense of his own that’s capable of giving the Cardinals trouble. If the Boilers have quarterback David Blough, whose status was unclear due to a shoulder injury, they cover the 25-point spread. If Blough is out, forget about it.
College football lovers understand that No. 21 Virginia Tech vs. No. 22 West Virginia (6:30 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 7) in Landover, Md., could provide the kind of last-team-with-the-football-wins moment that’s remembered all season. Is it just us, or are those games kind of fun? Four-point-favorite Hokies in overtime.
Here’s the thing about Texas A&M at UCLA (6:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox-32): The losing coach — the Aggies’ Kevin Sumlin or the Bruins’ Jim Mora — will be feeling serious heat. Still love Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen, but the four-point-underdog Aggies have the athletes on defense to make Rosen’s evening an unpleasant one. Sumlin 27, Mora 24.
My favorite favorite: Nebraska -15 vs. Arkansas State (7 p.m. Saturday, BTN). Huskers struggle some, but it’s nothing a couple of tack-on scores won’t fix.
My favorite underdog: South Carolina +5½ vs. N.C. State (2 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) in Charlotte. You’d play hard, too, if you’d had Will Muschamp gnawing at your feet all offseason.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.