Predictions 101 — Week 4

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If we were Lane Kiffin, we’d blame the players, injuries or even the media. But alas we aren’t the faultless USC head coach, and we’ll accept responsibility for last week’s 2-5 record (both straight up and vs. “the number”).

Speaking of Kiffin, we had a bead on his Trojans faltering at Stanford, but ultimately didn’t have enough guts to call for the full-scale upset. There’s no glory in predicting that the Trojans won’t cover. That’s a weekly certainty. But when we only land a pair, we cherish it.

Last week’s official upset call (Virginia over Georgia Tech) spectacularly went up in flames. The home office in Burbank, which currently handles the value-laden longshots, promises to do better this time around. With the extra assistance, those should most always get you across the line in good shape.

It’s a good slate of “ranked vs. ranked” this week, hopefully we can rise to the occasion.

TOP 5 GAMES OF THE WEEK (Thursday, Sept. 20, thru Saturday, Sept. 22)

1) No. 10 Clemson at No. 4 Florida State
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, ABC

The Seminole defense is allowing a single point per game. When an elite program opens against Murray State and Savannah State that sort of stonewalling is not a shock. But, last week’s 52-0 rout of Wake Forest, a team that had taken four of the last six meetings, was a bit of a surprise and signals that Florida State is definitely for real.

With upset alerts and full-blown stunners littering the college football landscape each week, there’s something to be said for a team that goes about its undefeated business to the tune of 176-3.

This defensive display isn’t anything entirely new. The Seminoles now have held 11 consecutive opponents to 19 points or less.

Perhaps it’s both good and bad news for the Tigers that FSU’s under-20 streak began after back-to-back 35-30 losses on the road at Clemson and Wake Forest last year.

The biggest threat to the Seminole end zone is Tiger wideout Sammy Watkins, who warmed up in a 41-7 victory over Furman after serving a two-game suspension. Last season, Watkins caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns versus Florida State.

Fourth and fifth on Jimbo Fisher’s list of worries — Tajh Boyd and Andre Ellington are second and third — are pass protection and short-yardage rushing efficiency. Both stem from uncertainties along an offensive line that allowed the Demon Deacons to sack quarterback E.J. Manuel three times.

Coach Corso will be right to back his alma mater by putting on a headdress out in the parking lot, but it’ll be “closer than the experts think.”

Opening point spread: Florida State by 13

The pick: Florida State 26-24

2) No. 18 Michigan at No. 11 Notre Dame
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC

This prediction comes courtesy of Shane Hedani from the P101 satellite office in Maunawili, Hawai’i.

For the Fighting Irish to do something that hasn’t happened since 2008 — beat the Wolverines — they must do what seems nearly impossible to them, bottle up Denard Robinson.

Off to its best start in a decade, Notre Dame is thinking BCS, even though it hasn’t lit up the scoreboard. What has been impressive is a defense led by linebacker Manti Te’o, who had 12 tackles in last week’s 20-3 signature win at Michigan State while grieving the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend.

In this game, the Irish defense, which is allowing only 10 points a game, would like to avoid last season’s fourth-quarter meltdown that saw Michigan score 28 points and cash in the game winner with just two seconds left.

Against Alabama in the opener, we saw what a disciplined talented defense can do to the Wolverine offense. Now, Notre Dame is not Alabama, but the Irish aren’t slouches either, ranking 18th in total defense, 8th in scoring, 11th in turnover margin and 10th in sacks.

The Irish are capable of forcing Robinson to throw it. We know Notre Dame losing safety Jamoris Slaughter to a season-ending Achilles injury hampers an already inexperienced backfield, but Te’o and the rest of the front seven can get Michigan into third-and-long situations, create takeaways and keep Robinson’s shoelaces in the pocket.

Making the Wolverines try to win through the air will land another huge W for the Irish.

Opening point spread: Notre Dame by 3 1/2

The pick: Notre Dame 31-16

3) No. 22 Arizona at No. 3 Oregon
Sat., Sept. 22 — 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Ducks and Cats combined for 87 points in last year’s matchup, a 56-31 Oregon victory in Tucson. This season, with Rich Rodriguez now in the saddle at Arizona, both teams are averaging roughly 600 yards in total offense. With all of that being the case, the only upset here is that the over/under opened at merely 75 points in this high-powered heavyweight battle of read-option offenses.

Both attacks are triggered by new starters. Duck redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota is completing 75.5 percent of his passes, which is just a shade better than his senior counterpart Matt Scott, who is connecting at a 71.5 percent clip. The fight for efficiency supremacy should be entertaining.

We won’t put a whole lot of weight on Arizona’s 56-0 whipping of South Carolina State last week, but you have to hand it to the Wildcats for not thinking that they deserved the weekend off after their impressive 59-38 victory over Oklahoma State. The UofA spread worked its way to 43 first downs.

Oregon also had its way with an overmatched opponent last week, but the Ducks’ 12 penalties and three turnovers in a routine 63-14 victory over Tennessee Tech showed a lack of focus.

Last year, in their first conference game on the road, the Wildcats went to Los Angeles and pushed USC to brink before falling, 48-41. They’ve got it in them to bear down once again and they’re new & improved. But Chip Kelly has taken Rodriguez’ offense to such an incredible place that it’s hard to imagine him slipping up at Autzen Stadium … or anywhere.

Opening point spread: Oregon by 26 1/2

The pick: Oregon 52-35

4) No. 15 Kansas State at No. 6 Oklahoma
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7:50 p.m. ET, FOX

The chasm between these two teams was massive last year. On their way to a 58-17 victory, the visiting Sooners rolled up 690 yards of total offense, including 520 through the air. Although the Wildcats did hold a lead in the second quarter, they weren’t really heard from offensively, totaling just 240 yards.

This has been somewhat of a habit for Oklahoma, which has taken the last five in the series and eight of the last nine.

In his previous two games versus the Wildcats, Sooner quarterback Landry Jones passed for 799 yards and nine touchdowns, without being sacked a single time. Kansas State appears to be gearing up to change that, having registered eight sacks in their last two games, led by defensive end Adam Davis.

Conversely, the Sooner defensive line will focus on stopping a KSU rushing attack that is averaging 252 yards per game. When Oklahoma cuts off running back John Hubert and quarterback Collin Klein on the ground, and forces Klein to the air, it’ll be another long day for the Wildcats.

Opening point spread: Oklahoma by 17

The pick: Oklahoma 41-21

5) No. 2 LSU at Auburn
Sat., Sept. 22 — 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

If we were ever going to have a SEC-less week here at P101 this would have been it. But this matchup featuring recent BCS champs snuck in just under the wire.

There’s not much to report though. Auburn finally putting up a tally in the win column with last week’s overtime decision over Louisiana-Monroe didn’t do anything but further confirm the fact that these two Tigers are headed in opposite directions.

LSU is working on a 16-game regular-season winning streak, while Auburn is hoping to avoid its first 1-3 start since 1998.

A few more starters would have to join injured running back Alfred Blue on the sidelines before we’d even begin considering Auburn’s ability to break its five-game losing streak versus ranked opposition, which includes last year’s 45-10 faceplant in Death Valley.

Opening point spread: LSU by 18 1/2

The pick: LSU 37-14

UPSET SPECIAL OF THE WEEK

Fresno State at Tulsa
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

This prediction comes courtesy of Marc Doche (@MDoche) from the P101 satellite office in Burbank, Calif.

Pat Hill is gone, but his schedule loaded with trips to top notch programs remains. This Tulsa squad, however, isn’t as good as in years past and is surely several steps down from what the Bulldogs faced at Oregon in a 42-25 defeat two weeks ago.

After easy wins over Tulane and Nicholls State, the Golden Hurricane’s three-game homestand is capped by this tough test against a squad that was on pace to hit the century mark against hapless Colorado last week before the dogs were called off.

Powered by potent rushing attacks, both squads are hovering around 44 points per game, while allowing the opposition to score about half that.

Tulsa has spread the wealth with a different tailback eclipsing the century mark in each for its three games.

Fresno State, on the other hand, has relied heavily on its newly crowned all-time leading rusher, Robbie Rouse, who has also rushed for 115 yards or more in each game this season.

Both defenses have been making plays as well. Tulsa leads the nation with 10.7 tackles for loss per game and is second in sacks at 5.7. Meanwhile, Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas returned two of his three interceptions against Colorado for scores.

The Bulldog defensive unit that gave Oregon fits two weeks ago (11 tackles for loss and three takeaways) will be the difference going against Golden Hurricane quarterback Cody Green, who tossed a pair of interceptions in the 38-23 loss at Iowa State in the opener.

Opening point spread: Tulsa by 6 1/2

The pick: Fresno State 34-27

RIVALRY GAME OF THE WEEK

New Mexico at New Mexico State
Sat., Sept. 22 — 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3

Hey, this might not be the Iron Bowl, but you gotta give props to an in-state rivalry that predates its statehood by 18 years.

Unsurprisingly, the Aggies are considerable favorites in this 103rd renewal of the Rio Grande Rivalry, which dates all the way back to 1894. The Lobos have won only a single game in each of their previous three seasons.

On the bright side for New Mexico, it’s in position for improvement after thrashing visiting Southern University, 66-21, in the opener.

But the schedule tightened up quite a bit after Bob Davie’s debut as the Lobos got laid out on the road by Texas (45-0) and Texas Tech (49-14). This will be New Mexico’s third consecutive game away from Albuquerque. If we weren’t talking about a short-haul rivalry game that would be cause for extreme concern.

New Mexico State has followed a similar pattern this season, opening with an easy win over Sacramento State, before dropping a pair on the road at Ohio and UTEP.

Davie is putting his stamp on the Lobos, who are averaging 212 rushing yards per game. That’s rather healthy, considering the competition they’ve faced. It’s also more than double what the Aggies have been able to muster on the ground (95 yards per game).

It’ll be close, but the Lobos’ drive home along I-25 will be an unpleasant one as the Aggies notch their fourth consecutive victory in the series.

Opening point spread: New Mexico State by 8 1/2

The pick: New Mexico State 26-23

Ex-UCLA OC helped convince Wilton Speight to transfer to Westwood

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When Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight announced he was going to graduate and transfer to UCLA, many were caught by surprise given that the 6-foot-6 pro-style passer is not your typical fit for Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense. While the new Bruins’ head coach brought up how Sam Bradford and Nick Foles ran his system to convince the quarterback to pick the school for the 2018 season, it was a former assistant at the program who appears to have been just as convincing in bringing the big QB to Westwood.

That would be Jedd Fisch, who was Speight’s coach in Ann Arbor for two years before he left to take the offensive coordinator job with the Bruins when Jim Mora was still in charge last season. The veteran coach returned to the NFL as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams shortly after Kelly was hired but he reconnected with his old pupil to give him an honest assessment of how he’d fit in with a school sporting a different shade of blue.

“As a coach, you can kind of sniff out the B.S.,” Speight told the LA Times, “and he was able to do that and say, ‘Look, you’re getting what you see at UCLA and I think it’s the right fit,’ and I couldn’t have agreed more.”

Speight will join a very competitive race to be the starter for the opener against Cincinnati when fall camp rolls around. Devon Modster is the incumbent having gotten experience last year when Josh Rosen was held out of several games while incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson is considered the future at the position and figures to see early playing time.

It remains to be seen just how good UCLA will be in their first season with Kelly in charge but the head coach will certainly have a variety of options to choose from at the most important position on the field this year.

Proposed California amendment would cap coaches salaries at $200,000

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Some states do everything they can to help out athletics programs in their borders, that is something that California has never really been accused of doing. A state-wide travel ban has already caused some ripples with regards to scheduling for some teams and it seems lawmakers in Sacramento are back with a new constitutional amendment that could hamper schools ability to pay their coaches.

UCLA student paper The Daily Bruin passes along news that a new constitutional amendment was announced last week “that aims to restrict the University of California’s autonomy by reducing staff salaries, the length of regents’ terms and the authority of the UC president.” That first item is the biggest to take note of, which would institute a cap on non-faculty salaries to $200,000 per year — something that would affect everybody from coaches to the athletic director and everybody in between.

The University of California (UC) system most notably includes Pac-12 schools like UCLA and Cal, which means coaches like Chip Kelly and Justin Wilcox could be affected. To take Kelly as an example, he signed a five-year contract worth a total of $23.3 million when he was hired by the Bruins this offseason.

Head football coaches salaries are not typically paid completely by a school directly however, so there is some wiggle room should this amendment wind up passing. Often a separate athletics organization will foot most of the bill using funds raised from donors while other outside companies sometimes also get involved. Things might be a little more interesting when it comes to assistant’s salaries or non-football/men’s basketball head coaches and support staffers however, who could fall under the purview of the cap.

In other words, some creative accounting practices might have to be implemented by schools like UCLA or Cal or else they’ll be at a significant disadvantage compared to their private school peers like USC or Stanford as well as conference rivals like Arizona or Oregon.

It’s far from certain the amendment will pass given that it requires a two-thirds vote in the state legislature as well as passing muster on a state-wide ballot measure during a general election. We don’t typically see college coaches wade too far into political waters but, in this case, they might be forced to because its one that directly affects their wallets.

Arkansas moving back to natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2019

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It’s a new era at Arkansas with Chad Morris and a new athletic director in charge and not even the turf will be spared from seeing changes.

Per the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the school will be moving to a natural grass field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium instead of replacing their current artificial turf again as it nears the end of its lifespan.

“Let me say my preference is I love natural grass,” Morris told the paper a few months ago. “That’s just me. Maybe that’s just the high school coach in me.

“Worrying about what the next surface out here looks like is irrelevant to me. I just want to get through a practice and get better today. But I prefer, I’m a natural grass type of guy. I love being on a grass field. There’s nothing better than that in college football, or football period.”

Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek confirmed this weekend that the change was being made in Fayetteville after the 2018 season concludes. The current turf was put in back in the Bobby Petrino era in 2009 and will need to be replaced after a decade or so of heavy use.

This will not be the end of Razorbacks playing on turf however, as they will not only see the stuff for games at neutral sites and at other SEC opponents but also when they make their annual trek to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock — which had turf installed a dozen years ago.

West Virginia President on old Big 12 expansion craze: ‘Little bit messy’

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E. Gordon Gee is one of college athletics’ most recognizable figures, which isn’t exactly what you typically say about school leaders like him. The West Virginia President known for his trademark bow tie (and who has never shied away from an interview or a quip he didn’t like) is on the cusp of his first set of spring meetings in the conference as the new chairman of the Big 12 board of directors.

Speaking to the Dallas Morning News about a range of issues around the league prior to meeting in Dallas, Gee seems to have come around on conference expansion from a few years ago and thinks it not only could have been handled better, but it probably shouldn’t be done in the first place because being the smallest Power Five league has its advantages too.

“I’m not certain it was the best way to do it,” Gee told the paper. “It was a little bit messy — and I was part of the mess.

“Intimacy gives us an opportunity to do something that a lot of other places can’t do… We’ll play to our strengths. We’re small, but we can be very aggressive in positioning ourselves uniquely.”

I’m sure the folks at places like Houston and BYU would agree the entire process was messy but will certainly disagree with Gee about the Big 12 sticking with just 10 members. It certainly sounds as though the issue has been put to bed for the foreseeable future but if the merry-go-round gets going once again, at least we know that the process everybody goes through will be a lot different.