With all apologies to Week Zero, the real start of the college football season is upon us.
With SEC games kicking off, ESPN writers Sam Khan Jr. and Alex Scarborough discussed this week’s slate and made their picks. Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more.
Scarborough: All right, Sam, let's get the obvious out of the way. Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are going to roll, right? I don't see a monumental upset in the bunch. Out of the second tier of Group of 5 games --- Kentucky-Southern Miss, Georgia-Appalachian State, Auburn-Georgia Southern, Ole Miss-South Alabama -- do you see one that you think could be closer than expected? I don't see an upset necessarily, but Ole Miss worries me with all the drama there and Appalachian State is one well-coached team.
Khan: Kentucky-Southern Miss is the obvious pick because, well, Southern Miss beat Kentucky last year. The Wildcats improved quite a bit over the course of the season and I don't expect that to be the case this year, but it's a game worth keeping an eye on. Also, Middle Tennessee and Vandy have played close games before in recent years (and MT beat Mizzou last year), so I think that one could be tight. It's a small spread.
That said, let's get to the headline games. Michigan-Florida: Gotta go with the Wolverines, right? I mean, the Gators have seemingly half the team suspended.
Scarborough: I think so. When I spoke to an SEC coach two weeks ago, he convinced me Florida was going to crush Michigan. Then the last week happened. Now I'm leaning Big Blue. While I really like the move to start Feleipe Franks on a number of levels -- in a way I think it relieves pressure on Jim McElwain by developing a QB for the future as opposed to win-now mode with a rent-a-player -- it's a really tough spot to be starting your first game. No Antonio Callaway. No Jordan Scarlett. And facing a well-coached, aggressive Don Brown defense spells trouble. Michigan might win by two touchdowns.
Looking in your neck of the woods, how do you size up Texas A&M-UCLA? I lean toward Josh Rosen and the Bruins, but I wonder what Kevin Sumlin has up his sleeve on offense. It has to be more than the Christian Kirk show for the Aggies.
Khan: I don't know what to make of this game. So many questions on both sides. Texas A&M usually starts fast, but Sumlin made changes in camp and this offseason in hopes the team will finish better. Will that result in a different start out of the gate? Sumlin admitted before camp that he's not sure. Rosen is on his third offensive coordinator in three years at UCLA. I think this is a toss-up, but I'm going to take A&M by a hair because I think they're going to be better on defense than many think, even without Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. What say you?
Scarborough: For those same reasons I like UCLA. Without Garrett and Hall rushing the passer, I think Rosen has a big game, the Bruins win by single digits, and Sumlin finds his seat getting even hotter. Along the same line, do you like Tennessee to beat Georgia Tech? I'm going to give this one to Butch Jones because I actually think the defense is going to be better than expected, but a Paul Johnson coached team always scares me.
Khan: I thought you were the one who once told me to never trust Butch Jones, Alex? I think Tennessee certainly has the talent edge here, but I don't know yet about Tennessee. Give me the Yellow Jackets.
Scarborough: I'll never learn, Sam. I just think a Tennessee team without the burden of expectations might surprise some people. Not win-the-East surprise, but better than expected.
Khan: All right, two more to knock out before the big one: I got LSU over BYU (de facto home-field advantage will help Ed Orgeron get his first win as the Tigers' full-time coach), and I really like South Carolina this year. Love what I saw from them when Jake Bentley took over. Give me the Gamecocks, with apologies to Cole Cubelic (who picked the Wolfpack to make the playoff).
Scarborough: I'm good with LSU here, too. I think Derrius Guice has a huge day and Danny Etling and the passing game, especially off play-action, have a big day. I worry somewhat about the defense with some new faces and no Arden Key, but I'll put that worry aside for now.
As far as South Carolina-NC State, I'm going with the Wolfpack. Maybe I spent too much time around ACC coaches this offseason or maybe Cole has rubbed off on me, but I really like that roster. Bradley Chubb and that defensive front are terrific, and the offense will score points. I like what Will Muschamp is building, but I think we're still a year early on the Gamecocks in terms of the depth they'll need to consistently win big games. Bentley is terrific but I think Chubb & Co. get in his face and force one too many mistakes.
And now for the main event: Alabama-Florida State. Before we give our picks, tell me a little bit about what you're looking for in this game?
Khan: In short: Alabama's offense. New year, new offensive coordinator, new scheme. As you eloquently put it, Brian Daboll was quite coy in his briefing with media recently, so we don't know what to expect. I'm curious to see how the Tide look on offense. What about you?
Scarborough: The blending of pro and spread concepts could work out really well ... or it could have growing pains. Alabama's running game, regardless, will be spectacular. What I worry about if I'm a Tide fan is the defense. Granted, they'll still be one of the best in the conference, but I think they take a step back from where they've been the past two years. You can't lose A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster from the front seven and stay on par. That just doesn't happen. And the secondary, while it's anchored by two good ones in Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick, has some questions about what they'll look like against four- and five-wide receiver sets.
I'm tepidly picking Alabama, but I won't be surprised at all if Deondre Francois makes a few big plays through the air that turn things. What's more, if Jalen Hurts can't get the downfield passing game going, Florida State's defense is good enough to load up the box and stop the run. Derwin James, to me, is the most critical piece of the game. His ability to make negative plays or turnovers is crucial.
Do you think Jimbo Fisher will break the 10-0 streak of Nick Saban beating his former assistants?
Khan: No, I'm also going with the Tide. I'm confident Da'Ron Payne, Da'Shawn Hand, Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton are going to carry the load just fine up front defensively. I think Hurts takes a big step forward this year at QB. He has a great receiver in Calvin Ridley and a great running game, as you said. This will be a more traditional win for Alabama: low scoring, run the ball and get a lot of stops on D.