It feels like an eternity since bowl season ended, but fortunately today marks the greatest day of the year, when football returns to rescue us from the barren sports wasteland of August. Baseball? The U.S. Open? That stuff is a nice filler, like the little bowl of pasta they serve you at a wedding before the steak comes out. But now we’re ready for the main course. I don’t care if A-Rod comes up to the plate with a steroid needle hanging out of his bicep, I’m officially done with baseball. It’s time for America’s real pastime, the greatest sport on Earth, football.
Welcome to Take the Points, the column formally known as Tom Z’s Highly Unethical College Football Gambling Picks. The name has changed, but the irreverent jokes and glorification of illegal gambling remains the same. For those of you who have never read this column before, welcome. My name is Tom Z and I like to bet on college football. Each week throughout the season, I share my bets, along with analysis and jokes. I try to help you make money, and I ask nothing in return. Think of me as the Johnny Manziel of blogging.
This week, I’ve picked a few lines, and put together a conference-by-conference season preview. Every Friday, starting next week, I’ll post my picks and release a college football podcast. You can find everything at ct.com/takethepoints. It should be a great season. Stay tuned.
Here are my week 1 picks. I’ll say this only once, but it applies for the rest of the season: Take my advice at your own risk.
Temple +30 over Notre Dame
Notre Dame should win this game, but by 31 points? Come on. Last year's national runner-up Irish squad could barely score 30 points in a game, and now they’re a mid-level team that's lost its starting quarterback, outstanding tight end, star defensive player and star defensive player's inspirational fake girlfriend. Temple can’t score either, but they’re good at running up the middle and burning the clock. If Temple has one specialty, it’s wasting time. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the school motto. Temple Football: A Waste of Time. Point being there won’t be enough clock left for the Irish to win by 30. Not to mention the return of Tommy Rees. It’s like the Irish got back together with their ex-girlfriend. We all know it’s going to end badly, but no one wants to be the one to speak up. Of course, this is a school that took inspiration from Lennay Kekua, Rudy, Ronald Regan’s Gipper and a leprechaun. False hope seems to works pretty well for them.
In week 1, I'll take a physical team over a finesse team. Oklahoma State has a great offense, but they've got some new pieces and it's unlikely everything will click on the first snap. Meanwhile, Miss St. is a tough SEC team with senior leadership at quarterback and tailback. OK State to win, Miss State to cover.
Those of you who read my column last year know that my number one rule is "Don't bet against Alabama." If you still have doubts, read this profile of Nick Saban and you'll realize the man is a soulless killing machine set on world domination. After Saban won the National Championship, he was pissed, because playing in the game cost him a week of recruiting. Let me repeat that. He was pissed because WINNING THE BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR IN FRONT OF MILLIONS OF VIEWERS COST HIM 7 DAYS OF RECRUITING. That is not a man you want to bet against. He’s the real life Walter White, and this Saturday he’s going to tell Frank Beamer to say his name. I expect Bama to dominate this game, in a repeat of last year's season opener against Michigan. It’ll be 28-3 before anyone knows what happened. Toss in a VA Tech special teams touchdown, some garbage time points and a Hokie kicker who goes 1-3 on field goals, and we're looking at a 38-16 final. Good enough to secure the OVER, not good enough to prevent Nick Saban from being disappointed.
In order to cover a 16 point spread, you must be capable of scoring at least 17 points. That is my basic problem with this line. Don't get me wrong, Washington State was horrible in 2012, but Auburn was atrocious. They didn’t beat a single D-I opponent! If Alabama-LSU is a race between Usain Bolt and the Bladerunner, then this game is a race between Stephen Hawking and a tree sloth. Take the points and change the channel.
Sidenote: As a Buffalo Bills fan, it’s not a great sign that the Bills’ week one starter, Jeff Tuel, is an undrafted rookie who led Washington State to a 3-9 record last year. This guy is an NFL starter and Washington State fans probably wouldn’t take him back if they had the option. Tuel time? I don't think so, Tim.
Remember in the show “Entourage” when Vinny Chase was the biggest movie star in the world, then he made one bad movie, and all of a sudden nobody cared about him? That’s like Boise State. They’re ranked in the top 10 for like eight years, then they have one slightly sub-par season and all of a sudden they’re not even in the discussion. This team has been rock-solid for nearly a decade. They won 11 games last year despite losing Kellen Moore and 75% of their starters. They’ve done well in recruiting and QB Joe Southwick improved a lot throughout the course of last year. This might not be the ’07 Broncos, but they should be pretty good. Washington is a respectable team, but their defense has holes, and Chris Petersen is excellent at exploiting opponents in week one match-ups. And oh by the way, these teams just played in a bowl game, and Boise won. So why are the Broncos a three-and-a-half point underdog? Like “Entourage,” it makes no sense, but I’ll still watch anyways.
Always bet on the SEC.
Georgia is a legitimate contender to win the National Championship this year. They start off with a brutal first month that includes games against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU. But if they can negotiate that part of the schedule with only one loss -- and keep in mind, South Carolina and LSU are home games -- then they're left with a winnable schedule that includes a depleted Florida and a bunch of average teams. They could work their way back into the top three just in time for a winner-take-all SEC Title Game showdown against Bama/LSU/A&M. This is purely hypothetical of course because they still have Mark Richt as coach. Richt is the Norv Turner of college; he stacks up great records but he's not to be trusted in big games. Georgia should have beat Alabama last year, but lost because of terrible clock management at the end of the game. That NEVER would have happened if Chris Petersen was coaching them. I commend Richt for trying to keep his program clean and win "the right way." Unfortunately doing things "the right way" doesn't work when you have to compete against guys like Nick Saban. To quote my friend Karl, a lifelong Georgia fan, "Mark Richt wants to win the right way, that's why Georgia always sucks*." I'll take the Bulldogs in this game. I'm skeptical that they can make it all the way to Pasadena, but if somebody's going to take down Alabama, well, Georgia's got as good a chance as anyone.
Clemson is my pick to represent the Atlantic Coast Conference in the BCS. I see them finishing 10-2, beating the teams they're supposed to beat and losing to Georgia and one other game (possibly South Carolina in the closer). I think they'll get their revenge against Florida State in Death Valley. They're a top ten team, and Tajh Boyd will be great. My one concern with Clemson is the same concern I have for all run-and-gun teams. When someone comes in and pushes them around, the formerly unstoppable offense becomes very stoppable. A great defense can blitz and rattle the quarterback, and when they're successful it's amazing how quickly a high-powered offense suddenly goes to hell. (For further evidence see Oregon-Stanford 2012, Florida-Nebraska 1995, Hawaii-Georgia 2008, West Virginia-Kansas State 2012, Oregon-SEC whenever.) Trying to stop the spread offense is like trying to beat the world's greatest Jenga player. You can't outsmart him, all you can do is yell and flip over the coffee table. Clemson’s o-line is going to get flipped over in this game. Luckily for the Tigers, their post-Georgia schedule lines up nicely for a BCS run.
LSU -5 over TCU
I've spent this column just repeating the same thing over and over. I guess that’s why they call me the Rihanna of college football analysis. But hey, whatever works. Don't bet against the SEC in week one. Don't bet against the SEC's top teams when they play out of conference. Don't bet against the SEC, period. TCU will have a decent season, but LSU is a title contender and seriously underrated at #12.
That said, is LSU ever going to get a decent quarterback? I’ve learned one thing from watching LSU over the past decade, and that is that Les Miles is horrible at choosing QBs. He had Matt Flynn and sat him behind Jamarcus Purple Drank Russell. Jarrett Lee was no All-American, but he did lead them to an undefeated regular season. Lee split time with the atrocious Jordan Jefferson during the title game, and the result was a blowout. Zack Mettenberg was supposed to be the Tigers’ savior, but he hasn’t panned out either. I’d take the guy in the Viagra commercial who throws the football through the tire over any of LSU’s quarterbacks of the past 5 years. Could you imagine if TCU’s Casey Pachall switched sides and played for LSU? They’d have won the last two championships by a landslide. What makes this worse is that Phillip Rivers’ little brother is the backup quarterback at LSU. Stephen Rivers is 6’7”, 200 lbs., he’s a run/pass double threat and he grew up playing football in Alabama. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he might be good. Even if he’s half as talented as his older brother, he’d still be the best option the Tigers have had in years. Why not give him a chance? I’m starting to think that Les Miles is a little crazy.
People joke about the Big East, or whatever it's called now. And granted, the conference is terrible, but they almost always manage to produce one quality BCS-worthy team. Louisville is almost a lock to win, and they'll be a formidable opponent for whoever they face in January. A lot of people have the Cardinals going undefeated, but I think between Rutgers, Cincy, South Florida and Houston, they'll end up blowing a game at some point. Even at 11-1, I think they take the conference by two games. They certainly won't surprise anyone in the post-season this year.
I won't waste anyone's time trying to dissect the rest of the Big East. Let me just say that I expect Cincinnati to cause some trouble.
And, since we are in Husky country, let me offer an honest prediction for the UConn’s 2013 season. I was going to write “basketball is only months away!” but I think you all deserve something a little more genuine. First, I should say that I’m not a UConn writer or even a fan, and if you want insight from people who follow the team for a living you can visit our sister site the Hartford Courant. I don’t think I’m breaking any news here, but UConn is way too conservative for a college football team in 2013. We’re living in a world of Miley Cyruses and UConn just wants to hold hands. Losing the athletic Scott McCummings for the season is not going to help. They do have a very good tailback in Lyle McCombs but unfortunately they tend to rely on him too heavily. They’re lousy with turnovers which is a huge problem. You can’t have a run-heavy, ball-control, time-of-possession offense and also turn the ball over frequently, which is exactly what UConn did last year. If their new offensive coordinator opens things up and takes some risks, then there’s a chance UConn could be bowl-bound this year. If they decide, “well, our tailback is our best player, let’s run it straight up the middle every down,” then we’re looking at another 5-7 season, and the only bowl they’ll be seeing is a scorpion bowl at Huskies. I’ll be semi-optimistic and pick UConn to go 7-5 this year with at least one solid upset. (I’m thinking Rutgers). And hey, thank you for scheduling Michigan at home. It’s about time we got a big-time game like that in Connecticut. In fact it’s such a big game that some UConn fans are debating cutting their flip cup game short and going into the stadium before halftime. UConn Football: There’s a game, too!
This is the most wide-open conference in America. Let's start with the big two. I think Oklahoma made a smart move going with a freshman quarterback. Blake Bell is good at barreling over the goal line, but he's not a conference-winning caliber quarterback. Oklahoma might lose a few games this season with an 18-year old at the helm, but this maneuver will put them in a great spot for the next three years. Texas improved over the course of last season, but there's something that's still not right about the Longhorns. Notably the quarterback. The one constant throughout Texas’ recent success has been a strong quarterback, whether it’s Vinsanity or Colt McCoy. I can’t pick out anything wrong with David Ash, per se, but he doesn't get the Ws. He’s not a closer. I'm leaning toward Oklahoma State. I think their quarterbacks are both great, all they need to do is pick one. Rotating quarterbacks is a terrible strategy. Even communism works better than rotating quarterbacks. Just pick a guy and be done with it. I also think that Baylor can surprise a lot of people if they can just get the same level of output from the quarterback position that they've gotten the past two years. The Lache Seastrunk for Heisman campaign starts now!
I'll take Clemson in the newly-expanded ACC. They've got the talent and they've been there before. Jameis Winston of Florida State is supposed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, but if you'll remember people said the same thing about Zack Mettenberg last year and that didn't pan out so well. If you’re looking for a sleeper pick, I’d go with the Miami Tropical Storms, who under Coach Al Golden might actually be good enough to merit the Hurricanes nickname again.
I like Oregon this year. I like Oregon every year. Marcus Mariota is my pick to win the Heisman and lead this team to a BCS bowl. He’s a bona fide star. Plus, the Ducks’ schedule is pretty soft aside from a road game at Stanford, where they’ll be out for revenge. De’Anthony Thomas is going to go into Palo Alto, bang some tech chick and then rush for 200 yards. I don’t anticipate much of a drop-off from the coaching change this year; in fact I think it could actually help. Oregon is sometimes too rushed, and in big games, when teams can actually stop them, the extreme hurry-up knocks their offense out of rhythm and leaves their defense too tired. If the Ducks can stay aggressive, but take a breath every once in awhile, I think it will be good for them.
This is a stacked conference, probably the second best in America. Stanford and UCLA will both push for a BCS appearance. Oregon State, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington will all be formidable. USC has to be better. Cal has a good chance to turn it around. And Colorado… well they have some beautiful mountains. I like the PAC 12 to provide two BCS teams and a ton of non-conference victories.
I’m torn. I keep hearing about how Ohio State will cruise through the conference, but I don’t understand how a schedule with Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan is considered a cakewalk. It’s tougher than Oregon’s schedule. I think the Wolverines are going to be very good this year and challenge the Buckeyes for the crown. It’ll be a reminder of the good old days, when the economy was great, Maurice Clarrett was a promising young athlete, and Tom Brady was just some guy trying to fill the shoes of Brian Griese. If I were forced to pick a winner at gunpoint, I’d go with Ohio State, then wonder why a man with a gun asked for my college football picks and not my money. My sleeper is Northwestern, who could get to 9 wins. And keep your eye on Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has a chance to be great if he can just win the starting job. Hackenberg has the two things every great quarterback needs: A strong arm, and a name that sounds like he belongs in a yacht club.
The gap between the rich and the poor – a.k.a. the SEC and everyone else – keeps getting wider every year. Pretty soon the rest of the nation is going to have to have an Occupy Wall Street style protest over how good the SEC is. It’s unfair. This conference is absolutely loaded, even better than last year. I really, really don’t want to pick Alabama, but I’m struggling to come up with a team that can finish the season ahead of the Tide. I can’t pick LSU until they get their quarterback situation straightened out. Spurrier is too unpredictable for me to feel good about a South Carolina pick. Georgia is incredibly talented but has a knack for choking. Florida’s schedule is insane. Texas A&M could go either way, depending on whether Johnny Football plays with a chip on his shoulder or has a Lindsay Lohan style meltdown halfway through September. I like the two Mississippi teams as upset picks, but they both have devastating schedules that should prevent them from being anything other than a spoiler. Arkansas has the hardest schedule in the country, so even under the great Brett Bielema it’s going to be a long road back to glory. Tennessee, Missouri and Vandy are far from automatic wins, and even the hapless Kentucky has to be better than last year. Sadly we’re stuck with Alabama, who has a ton of talent, two Heisman contenders and a pretty easy schedule by SEC standards. The Tide would probably have to lose twice to be denied a trip to the SEC Championship Game. We all know that the SEC winner goes to the National Championship Game, and we all know that an SEC title contender will be heavily favored against whoever they play.
So, as much as I’d like to see something different, I think the logical choice to win this year’s title is the Alabama Crimson Tide. One day Nick Saban will leave to coach the Jaguars and stiff the university with a decade’s worth of sanctions. Until that day, those of us who like diversity will just have to pray for a miracle.
Alabama over Oregon
Other BCS teams
Ohio State (Big Ten), Oklahoma State (Big 12), Louisville (AAC), Clemson (ACC), Georgia (at large), Stanford (at large), Michigan (at large), Boise State (at large)
Winner: Marcus Mariota of Oregon, a superstar in the making who will have a banner year both throwing and rushing.
Contenders: A.J. McCarron and T.J. Yeldon of Alabama (who will split votes a la Kerry Collins/Ki-Jana Carter in ’94), Tajh Boyd of Clemson (huge stats this year but mostly in blowout games), Braxton Miller (ditto), Todd Gurley of Georgia (phenomenal talent and future NFL star), Teddy Bridgewater (probably has to go undefeated to receive serious consideration), Jadeveon Clowney (would need to have the greatest year ever to win)
Semi-Sleepers: Todd Hundley of UCLA (multi-talented), Lache Seastruck of Baylor (a human highlight reel), Devin Gardner of Michigan (a better QB than Denard Robinson), Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (he’s back, baby)