Nick Saban

Predictions 101 — Week 1


Here we go!

It’s been 33 long weeks without college football games to keep us occupied and the offseason was generally one that we’d like to forget.

Thankfully, the best season in sports is finally upon us and we’re digging right in.

TOP 5 GAMES OF THE WEEK (Thur. Aug. 30 thru Mon., Sept. 3)

1) No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 2 Alabama at Arlington, Texas
Sat., 8 p.m. ET, ABC

Thanks to Brady Hoke, Michigan got back to being Michigan last year, but three starting defensive linemen are not back this season. That doesn’t bode well for the Wolverines in this matchup versus the defending BCS champs.

Led by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones and three other returning starters, the Crimson Tide offensive line is the best in the country and it’s looking for more ways to prove it.

Alabama averaged 5.5 yards per rush last season, but the offense generated just 13 plays that went for 40 or more yards. Nick Saban is looking for new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to add more explosiveness to the passing game led by junior quarterback A.J. McCarron.

Michigan’s offense suffers from no such lack of explosiveness. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson is a powder keg and has been a particularly strong performer out of the gate in September. However, opening against Alabama is a different ballgame.

Someone with a penchant for throwing interceptions might be in for a long night against a Crimson Tide defense that shouldn’t fall off much from last year’s showing that saw it allow only 3.3 yards per play and permit third-down conversions at a stingy rate of 24.5 percent.

Michigan’s corresponding numbers from last season were 5.2 and 36.4 percent. Take nothing away from Wolverine defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who did a masterful job last season, bringing Michigan’s defense out from the muck, but this is too tough a task.

Trent Richardson is gone and his replacement, Eddie Lacy, is nursing knee and ankle sprains, but that doesn’t mean the Tide will be searching for answers at running back. If Lacy is limited or ineffective, expect to see true freshman T.J. Yeldon show his considerable stuff.

Opening point spread: Alabama -11

The pick: Alabama 26-19

2) No. 24 Boise State at No. 13 Michigan State
Fri., 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

This will be the fourth consecutive time that the Broncos open the season against a ranked foe from a BCS automatic qualifying conference. Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia were each previously victimized. However, this is a bit different because it’s the first of the four played on the opponent’s home field … and the first played without Kellen Moore available to take snaps.

Thankfully for Boise State, both teams are starting new quarterback eras. Like Moore, Michigan State hero Kirk Cousins will be remembered for a long time at his alma mater.

Quarterback Joe Southwick won’t be the only new starter for the Broncos. Most of the skill positions around him will be manned by newcomers, as well as all but two spots on defense. Wow.

We keep hearing that Boise State has become one of these schools that reloads instead of rebuilds. Amazing.

Chris Petersen is indeed a miracle worker, but rolling into East Lansing where the Spartans have eight starters returning from a defense that allowed less than 280 yards and 19 points per game is a mighty tough task with a new signalcaller.

After this trip, the Broncos likely will fall out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since September of 2008. That’s nothing to mourn … rather something to marvel.

Opening point spread: Michigan State by 7 1/2

The pick: Michigan State 31-20

3) No. 14 Clemson vs. Auburn at Atlanta
Sat., 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The last time we saw Clemson, the Tigers were being humiliated by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Reportedly Brent Venables, who came over from Oklahoma to be Clemson’s new defensive coordinator, hasn’t watched all the footage of that 70-33 debacle. We wouldn’t either. It would not only be depressing, but also barely relevant as he reworks what remains from that unit into his favored 4-3 alignment.

Similarly, the last time these two Tigers were on the same field a year ago, the ones representing Auburn surrendered 624 yards of total offense on their way to a 38-24 defeat that snapped a 17-game winning streak. At one point, Auburn inexplicably allowed Clemson to convert on 10 consecutive third-down attempts. Ouch.

Unlike Venables’ situation, that tape is something new Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder needs to take a long look at.

With Gene Chizik recently announcing that sophomore Kiehl Frazier will start at quarterback, the Auburn defense might need to hold Clemson under 19 points to win the ballgame. The future is bright for the young dual-threat signalcaller, but we aren’t sure how he’ll perform on such a big stage this early in the season. He’ll also be working with a new coordinator (Scot Loeffler, who takes over for Gus Malzahn) and without suspended starting center Reese Dismukes.

Even though suspended wideout Sammy Watkins isn’t available to lean on, we’ve got more confidence in Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was 30-of-42 for 386 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s matchup. And tailback Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins are ready to roll for the defending ACC champs.

Opening point spread: Clemson by 7 1/2

The pick: Clemson 27-19

4) Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia Tech
Mon., 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

There’s lots of hype around jumbo quarterback Logan Thomas being the “next Cam Newton.” He has the size and some of the tools, but we just need to see if his young supporting cast compliments him well enough to get the job done each week.

Thankfully, the Hokie offense won’t be overly pressed to produce since the Virginia Tech defense, which has a host of experience at every level, will keep the majority of its opponents significantly under wraps.

Last year, the Hokies put the clamps on the Yellow Jackets in the fourth quarter of a 37-26 victory in Atlanta.

With Georgia Tech severely inexperienced at the receiving positions, it’s hard to picture the Ramblin’ Wreck keeping pace in this crucial Coastal Division showdown in Blacksburg.

Opening point spread: Virginia Tech by 7 1/2

The pick: Virginia Tech 27-17

5) No. 9 South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Thurs., 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Gamecocks surpassed all expectations last year, winning a school-record 11 games. What’s even more amazing is that they played nearly half the season with All-Everything tailback Marcus Lattimore on the sidelines.

With his recovery from knee surgery complete and Connor Shaw solidified at quarterback (if back spasms don’t get in the way), South Carolina is dreaming big.

Vanderbilt, however, doesn’t give a hoot about all this and there is some danger looming in Nashville as second-year head coach James Franklin has the Commodores feeling good about notching back-to-back bowl seasons.

Of course, good times in the opener will last only as long as quarterback Jordan Rodgers (Aaron’s little brother) remains upright while facing South Carolina’s skyscraper defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney (6-6) and Devin Taylor (6-8).

Remember how poorly the Gamecocks played in last season’s lid-lifter against East Carolina?

This will be tight.

Opening point spread: South Carolina by 8

The pick: South Carolina 24-23


Notre Dame vs. Navy at Dublin, Ireland
Sat., 9 a.m. ET, CBS

How could we pass up the longest continuous intersectional rivalry in college football? And this time it’s a season opener in Ireland!

Newly named starting quarterback Everett Golson has that electric quality to him, but he also won the confidence of Brian Kelly by displaying good decision making in practice. According to Kelly, he was intercepted just one time in his first 126 attempts of fall camp.

Following that sort of trend was the bright side of the offseason for Kelly, who spent (and continues to spend) considerable time getting tough with his misbehaving players.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been laying down the law regarding another kind of toughness, the physical kind. He and his Midshipmen feel that’s what was missing as they slipped to a 5-7 mark last season and missed out on a bowl game for the first time in eight years.

Navy has only 11 returning starters and is particularly inexperienced in both trenches. After losing its entire starting defensive front, it’s frightening to think of how punchless the Midshipmen pass rush will be after barely generating any penetration and pressure a year ago.

Opening point spread: Notre Dame by 14

The pick: Notre Dame 28-16


Washington State at BYU
Thurs., 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

We like Mike Leach. We admit it. We don’t like pirates. We don’t like Pullman. But we like Leach. And, guess what, his act and attack is going to work up in the Palouse.

Like the oddsmakers, we realize that Wazzu has no business waltzing into Provo thinking that they’ve got this won. But once the bullets start flying, BYU will know that it’s in for a 60-minute shootout against Leach and his senior triggerman Jeff Tuel.

Of course, BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, a seventh-year senior, is capable of grabbing a hold of the game and not letting go, especially against Washington State’s limp defense, but at least the experienced Cougar secondary has been there before against similar attacks.

Maybe it’s not a moneyline play, but there’s a lot to like.

Opening point spread: BYU by 12 1/2

The pick: Washington State 31-30

2011 regular season record: 121-43
2011 bowl record: 20-15

Not everybody seems happy about USC’s hiring of Clay Helton

Clay Helton
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If there is one thing that can be said about USC hiring Clay Helton as head coach on a permanent basis, it is that it provides stability for the program moving forward. Current players have responded well to Helton. Future Trojans players are responding well to Helton on the recruiting trail. Former USC players? Well, that’s a different situation.

We saw some of this at Miami in recent years with former Hurricanes ripping now former head coach Al Golden. That was a bit of a different situation with Golden being a coach that went against the grain of all that was perceived to be representative of The U. Helton is different because he has been loyal to the program as an assistant coach during a turbulent time. He at least deserves respect of those following and those who have played for USC for that alone. The problem is Helton lacks the kind of appeal most wearing USC lenses expect from their coaching hire and it seems more likely to believe athletics director Pat Haden settled for Helton instead of being able to expand the coaching search and bring in a high-quality coach for the job.

There is one way to swing the emotions the other way for those unhappy with the decision. If USC beats Stanford to win the Pac-12 championship this week, that would be one step in the right direction for the Helton haters and the Haden skeptics (myself included). The pressure will be on more next season regardless of what happens this week in the Pac-12 championship game and whatever bowl game USC ends up playing. USC will be loaded with talent and will be a trendy pick to make a run in the Pac-12 and, perhaps, even the College Football Playoff.

USC names Clay Helton permanent head coach

Clay Helton

The top coaching vacancy in college football has been filled. USC has announced it will remove the interim tag from Clay Helton and make him the permanent head coach moving forward.

Helton has gone 5-2 since taking over the program following the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian as head coach. The most recent win this weekend against UCLA both snapped a three-game losing streak to the crosstown rival Bruins and clinched USC’s first trip to the Pac-12 championship game as Pac-12 South Division champions. Helton has been with the USC program since 2010 under various assistant roles. He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2013 and named interim head coach that season following the firing of Lane Kiffin. He stayed on the staff following the hiring of Sarkisian from Washington.

Helton had become a clear player favorite in the program, as Helton calmed a troublesome environment of uncertainty in the middle fo the season and delivered a division championship. The only losses under Helton came on the road against Notre Dame in Helton’s first game as interim head coach and more recently at Oregon, a program that revived itself as well. If nothing else, Helton’s being named the head coach provides for some stability for the program, although there should be some questions moving forward whether it will be the right move or not in the long term. The USC job was thought to be the top job on the market and worthy of some high-caliber candidates. There had been rumblings USC reached out to Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, a former Oregon coach of course, but the odds Kelly was going to leave the Eagles on his own a year after getting general manager power were always low.

USC will continue to bring plenty of pressure to win, and win big. Helton will continue to guide a roster packed with talent and getting back to full strength after a stretch of sanctioned seasons. If Helton does not win, he will quickly enter the hot seat conversation.

USC plays Stanford for the Pac-12 championship this week.

Will Mark Richt coach again? “Oh yeah, no doubt”

Mark Richt

On Sunday the end of the line for Mark Richt at Georgia was finally reached. The Bulldogs and the head coach will go separate ways after a 15-season run in Athens, but this will not be the final stop for Richt as a head coach. On Monday, during a press conference with the media to address the coaching change, Richt was asked whether he will coach again.

“Oh yeah, no doubt,” Richt said in his response. “I’m going to listen to anybody that’s interested in talking to me,” Richt said when again asked about what’s next for the now former head coach of Georgia.

The press conference with Richt was a bit unusual for these types of settings. First, Richt continued to show his Georgia pride by wearing a black coat and red tie and had a Georgia pin on his coat. Second, he sat right next to Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity, who offered no insight whatsoever on what’s next for Georgia. When asked about the coaching search or the status for assistants, McGarity continued to shift the focus on Richt.

Richt expressed his enthusiasm for getting to coach one final game for Georgia. He will coach Georgia’s bowl game, wherever that may be, giving him one last chance to end a season with a bowl victory, which he has done nine times previously.

Kentucky QB Patrick Towles to transfer

Patrick Towles

Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles will transfer, he announced in an Instagram post Sunday afternoon.

Towles leaves school as Kentucky’s sixth-most prolific passer, completing 427-of-759 passes for 5,099 yards with 24 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

Once compared to Ben Roethlisberger, Towles’ career peeked in a 2014 game with then-No. 1 Mississippi State, as he completed 24-of-43 passes for 390 yards with two touchdowns in a 45-31 loss to the Bulldogs.

But Kentucky stumbled down the stretch, starting 5-1 and finishing 5-7, and Towles stumbled through a 2015 campaign in which he threw nine touchdowns against 14 interceptions.

He’d been passed by freshman Drew Barker by the end of the season, and threw only four passes in a loss to Louisville on Saturday.

A junior, Towles will complete his political science degree in December and be eligible for immediate playing time at a new destination in 2016.