Top Ten Games That Matter: The First Four Weeks

#1 Wk. 2 – Oregon @ Michigan State

2014’s thriller has set up a second week rematch that highlights the first four weeks of the season. Oregon won the Pac-12 last year and made it to the first playoff championship game while Michigan State trumped Baylor in a thrilling Cotton Bowl matchup. An argument could be made that while Ohio State won the Big Ten championship game the real deciding match was the de facto Big Ten East championship game between Michigan State and Ohio State.

This matchup will go a long way towards determining conference bragging rights and perception which was proven last year to be key in seeding (and making) the playoffs. The game will tell us much about these teams. Will Oregon be able to weather the loss of Marcus Mariota? Can Spartan quarterback Connor Cook continue to develop into one of the nation’s best and most underrated young signal callers? How will the Ducks look in head coach Mark Helfrich’s second year? How will MSU handle major transitions in their running game?

This early trial by fire will help answer these questions and set up power matchups in the Big Ten or Pac-12.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Michigan State

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#2 Wk. 1 – Louisville v. Auburn (Atlanta, GA)

Is Auburn for real? War Eagle is a trendy pick to win the SEC and make the playoff but there is a lot of transition on the plains. Nick Marshall is gone and the Tigers have lost much on the defensive line as well as the defensive backfield (though they do have one of the most experienced linebacker corps in the SEC). Will Muschamp is in at defensive coordinator and he should prove to be an upgrade but the question marks still remain, especially considering the lofty predictions.

On the other side of the ball the question is can Louisville take the next step in their second year in the ACC? Head coach Bobby Petrino has proven he can build contenders, but the Cardinals have lost a lot of talent with 10 starters now in the NFL. They have options at quarterback but question marks at the playmaker positions. Against a Muschamp defense and a Malzhan offense, that does not bode well.

With the two teams full of question marks playing in a marquee first week game, we’re going to find out a lot about the race for the ACC and SEC conference championships. If Auburn wins handily then the Tigers will look great and gain a lot of confidence going into SEC play. If the game is close questions will start to swirl about whether Auburn is ready and if Louisville is going to be better than expected. If Louisville shocks Auburn and wins then the perception of the SEC West race is going to be rocked at the start of the season while Louisville becomes a major ACC contender alongside Clemson and Florida State.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Auburn

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#3 Wk. 3 – Ole Miss @ Alabama

We know Alabama will be a factor in the SEC even if they have quarterback concerns. Ole Miss has flown under the radar this offseason despite the fact that they had a breakout season in 2014 and return many starters, especially on defense, from a team that took down Alabama in 2014 and threatened to make the conference championship game. There are questions about star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell’s injuries from 2014 going into 2015, and Ole Miss will have to find a quarterback and quick to replace Bo Wallace, but they are loaded with talent. While pundits have talked loudly about Auburn’s favorite status, Texas A&M’s potential, and Arkansas’ dark horse status…Ole Miss has been largely ignored. A win by Alabama in week three should be par for the course in the Saban-era but would be an important win at the start of a long SEC season. If Ole Miss can make it back-to-back stunners, this time in Tuscaloosa, the Rebels will instantly become a trendy pick in their own right. Regardless, this week three matchup is going to be hugely important in sorting out the crowded SEC West.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Alabama

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#4 Wk. 4 – UCLA @ Arizona

As jumbled as the SEC West is, the Pac-12 South is giving it a run for its money. In 2014 Arizona took the south division crown over UCLA (before getting demolished by Oregon for the actual championship) despite the fact that the Bruins took down the Wildcats 17-7 in the season. UCLA also downed Arizona in 2013 but still finished second in the Pac-12 South, this time to Arizona State. Both teams are expected to compete for the division, UCLA seeking its first division crown since their back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 and Arizona seeking its first since last year.

UCLA returns a wealth of experience and should be the dominate defensive team in the south to compliment the plethora of offense teams like Arizona showcase. The big question mark for the Bruins is at quarterback where they will start a career backup or a highly touted true freshman. If the UCLA quarterback situation plays out favorably, then Bruins will be a force to reckon with. The Wilcats return lots of star power and experience at the skill positions including quarterback Anu Solomon but their questions lie in the trenches. Arizona losses three offensive linemen from 2014 and has question marks on defense even if they return highly touted linebacker Scooby Wright.

The key to this one is the over/under. If UCLA finds itself in a shootout with Arizona then the Wildcats will have the advantage while fewer points favors the Bruins. If this game goes over 60 points then UCLA should be nervous. If the announcers go over 2.5 Scooby Doo/Scooby Wright references then America should be nervous as well. Regardless, this game will be crucial in sorting out the Pac-12 South and giving us an early idea of how each team is going to shake out.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: UCLA

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#5 Wk. 1 – Texas A&M v. Arizona State (Houston, TX)

Much of this post focuses on key matchups in the crowded Pac-12 South and SEC West divisions. If previous history is any indicator, innocuous games pitting those divisions #3 versus #6 teams can have huge playoff and conference championship implications. It only makes sense to list a huge matchup between two high-powered offenses from those very divisions.

Arizona State won the Pac-12 South in 2013 but regressed to third in the division in 2014 (still good enough to end ranked #12). They were on the wrong side of narrow losses to Oregon State and rival Arizona but also took home razor-thin wins against USC and Utah. The impressive thing was the Sun Devil’s ability to bring home 10 wins despite massive losses on the defense going into 2014. That same inexperienced defense now has experience and Arizona State returns 16 starters for 2015 including the vast majority of their offensive line and defense. Losing 2014 quarterback Taylor Kelly hurts but the Sun Devils have consistently been one of the nation’s top offenses under head coach Todd Graham and senior Mike Bercovici seems poised to pick up without missing much of a beat.

Unlike Arizona State, Texas A&M comes into 2015 with tons of question marks. Unlike Todd Graham whose Sun Devil’s teams have maintained at 10 wins despite expected regression, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has seen the Aggies explode onto the SEC scene with 12 wins then decline to nine and finished 2014 with eight wins. A&M has produced some elite talent on both sides of the ball such as all-galaxy defender Myles Garrett or the loaded receiving corps but tying the talent into cohesive units has been lacking. The Aggie offense should continue to be potent but the question marks lie with new defensive coordinator John Chavis and whether or not he can finally produce defensive results as well as sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen. Allen had highs and lows in 2014 after being thrust into the spotlight after the even more dramatic rise and fall of former Aggie QB Kenny Hill. With an offseason under his belt he is expected to make the leap but the Aggie fanbase’s greatest strength, passion, is also its greatest weakness. A&M fans care so much about their team that it can sometimes impact the flow of seasons, especially at highly visible positions like quarterback. Stardom deeply effected Johnny Manziel, caused Kenny Hill to implode, and now the hopes of a desperate fanbase lie on the 19-year-old nerves of a kid from Arizona. It’s only fitting a super talented but questionable A&M team led by an Arizona high school phenom should face off against a highly touted Arizona State team with few question marks. It’s also fitting that yet another freshman phenom sits behind Allen on the Aggie bench in Texas high school legend Kyler Murray.

This matchup will speak volumes about the status of the SEC, the Pac-12, the two divisions, Graham, Sumlin, and both teams. An Aggie win will play out similarly to A&M’s unexpected win over South Carolina in 2014, igniting a fanbase and a team, hopefully with better results as the season unfolds. It will also preserve Sumlin’s unblemished out of conference record since taking the reigns in College Station. If Arizona State wins it will serve a loaded Sun Devils team well as they seek the playoffs and add more ammunition to the argument that the SEC is no longer the top conference in college football.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Arizona State

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#6 Wk. 3 – Auburn @ LSU

LSU is suddenly becoming a trendy pick to make the college football playoff. The Tigers should reload on defense but the questions are on offense. Can all-world runningback Leonard Fournette carry the brunt of the Tiger’s offense? Can the returning LSU quarterbacks, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, get the job done if Fournette gets hurt or has an off day? Will the defense miss a beat with the transition from longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis to new coordinator Kevin Steele?

On the flip side we’ve discussed how the Tigers of Auburn are also a trendy pick despite some major question marks. This week three matchup in Death Valley will tell us which Tigers squad is for real and which will have to recover in a loaded SEC West after an early stumble. With Ole Miss and Alabama playing the same day, the SEC West race will become much clearer by the end of the third week.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: LSU

***

#7 Wk. 4 – USC @ Arizona State

There are several certainties that happen every fall. The days grow shorter as summer shifts to winter, school comes back around, and hype builds about USC football. We touched above on how dangerous Arizona State seems to be on paper heading into 2015 but what about USC? Well…the Trojans have been progressing the further they get from the Lane Kiffin era. They won nine games in 2014 and were a Hail Mary (against Arizona State no less) away from ten. Like most teams in the Pac-12 South the Trojans had a share of incredible wins and a share of mind-boggling losses. For 2015 they return a wealth of experience in their own right. USC will always have loads of talent but as the Pete Carroll-era sanctions become a thing of the past that talent looks better and better. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns and looks poised to give the Trojans a star QB once again. The offensive line is loaded and the defense returns tons of experience.

But there are still question marks. USC will see heavy losses from the receiving corps and the running back position. At a place like USC its assumed the skill positions will always find talent somehow or another but in a loaded Pac-12 South that justified arrogance could cost the Trojans some games. There is also the matter of head coach Steve Sarkesian whose leadership is in question after recent scandals involving a possible alcohol problem (which in my opinion seem overblown) but also whether or not he is ready to compete at a national championship level. Sarkesian has been a head coach at high level jobs for a while now and while he has shown no problem getting his teams to conference championship contention, he has never shown the utter dominance we’ve come to expect from the head coach at USC.

Whether that’s a question of team talent or whether the Trojan program can elevate his skill is yet to be seen. What we do know is that this early game against an equally loaded Arizona State game will tell us much about whether USC is ready to compete for the conference a national title, whether ASU is ready for all of that, or whether the Pac-12 South is still anyone’s game.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: USC

***

#8 Wk. 3 – Stanford @ USC

The Cardinal took a worrying step back in 2014 but its only worrying on paper. Quarterback Kevin Hogan dealt with injuries and three of Stanford’s losses came three points. Had Stanford down just two of USC/Notre Dame/Utah in 2014 the Cardinal would have only rounded off yet another ho-hum ten win season and would likely be ranked in the top 15 heading into this season. Instead, one of the most consistent teams of the past five years is being heavily over looked. Perhaps its Stanford’s less than flashy style of play. Perhaps its the fact that they are Stanford and there is a strange “expectation” that the geeky school in Palo Alto will inevitably regress and the football team will be stocked more with computer engineering talent rather than NFL talent in a few years time.

Let’s get something straight. Jim Harbaugh built a program to last and David Shaw is a tremendous coach. Kevin Hogan should be healthy and the Cardinal offense looked like it was back on track by the end of 2014 and that should hold true in 2015 barring injury. Yes, the defense has attrition but Stanford hasn’t been hurting for good defenses since the Harbaugh era and until proven otherwise we should expect Shaw to crank out another solid showing. After all, Stanford is at its best when the offense and defense work together to compliment each other and it could easily be said that last year’s struggles were largely a result of a lackluster offense.

And not a small amount of bad luck.

Stanford’s 2014 season got off to a rough start in their narrow loss to USC. While the score says otherwise the Cardinal dominated that game save for two missed kicks, two lost fumbles, and a turnover on downs. That game set the tone for both USC and Stanford last year and there is no reason why their 2015 matchup can’t be the same.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Stanford

***

#9 Wk. 3 – Clemson @ Louisville

By all accounts the ACC is going to come down once more to Clemson and Florida State. Both teams are far and away more talented than the rest and both teams will be starting Heisman dark horse QBs in DeShaun Watson for Clemson and Everett Golson for Florida State. There is a third team lurking that could muddy the ACC’s playoff hopes and that is Louisville.

We discussed the Cardinals above and their early games against Auburn and Clemson are as tough an early season stretch as one will find. Louisville has major question marks across the board but the Cardinals unexpected nine wins in 2014 is telling. Louisville has learned over the years how to win despite talent, not because of it. We’ve also learned that while Bobby Petrino loves to shoot himself in the foot, he rebuilds teams and he does so quick.

Clemson had one of the best defensive units of 2014 but attrition is going to wear them thing for 2015, especially on the defensive line and at linebacker. There is an expectation that defensive coordinator Brent Venables will take the raw talent there and get the Tigers where they need to be but early games will test their ability. Quarterback DeShaun Watson will be elite if he stays healthy; a big IF. If Watson stays healthy all year, then Clemson will be a playoff contender.

The problem for Clemson is Watson’s health is a major concern as are the defensive holes. Good luck and game experience are what they need to fix those issues but this early game against Louisville will prove a crucial test.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Louisville

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#10 Wk. 2 – LSU @ Mississippi State

Mississippi State loses a lot of talent from a squad that dominated the first half of 2014 but they return a very key factor in 2015: quarterback Dak Prescott. More than anything else the evolution of the game of football has emphasized the quarterback. We’ve seen in the NFL and in college that a good quarterback can make up for lots of flaws. Conversely we’ve seen good teams derailed by bad quarterbacks or QB injuries (see 2014 Stanford during Kevin Hogan’s struggles for reference). This is why I’m shocked so many pundits are writing off the Bulldogs. Yes, MSU has a lot of attrition but penciling them into to last place in the SEC West discredits all head coach Dan Mullen has accomplished.

This isn’t to say the Bulldogs will repeat as contenders for the conference. You don’t have those level of loses especially in the trenches and stay elite. Mississippi State has a lot of talent to replace but key returning starters and a Heisman level quarterback should ease the pain of transition.

If MSU is going to make noise in the SEC West they will have to pick their spots. Dak will have to feast on weak defenses and out-score weak offenses. The Bulldog’s upset of LSU early last season shocked the college football world and set up their run to #1. LSU will have this game marked on their calendars for revenge but with the game early in the season and the usual questions about the Tigers offense lingering, if MSU wants to remain competitive in the division this game is crucial. If LSU wants to remain a perennial SEC contender, they have to avenge last seasons loss early in 2015.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: LSU

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Honorable Mentions

Wk. 2 – Oklahoma @ Tennessee

Tennessee has received lots of hype this offseason while the Sooners are quietly underrated in a Big 12 race dominated by TCU and Baylor. Will OU continue to show why it shouldn’t be overlooked or will the Vols show they truly are a team to take seriously early this season.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Tennessee

***

Wk. 1 – TCU @ Minnesota

It’s hard to see TCU losing this one but no one should sleep on a Minnesota team returning lots of starters.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: TCU

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Wk. 1 – Ohio State @ Virginia Tech

Revenge is a dish best served on public display on a Monday night on ESPN with everyone watching.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Ohio State

***

Wk. 1 – BYU @ Nebraska

Mike Reilly will do the Huskers good but the Cougars love upsetting blueblood programs.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: BYU

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Wk. 1 – Texas @ Notre Dame

A historically prestigious but currently lopsided matchup

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Notre Dame

***

Wk. 2 – Houston @ Louisville

Can Tom Hermann show that the Cougars belong? Can Louisville avoid the trap game?

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Houston

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Wk. 3 – South Carolina @ Georgia

An early road test will show us if the Gamecock’s down 2014 was a blip or a trend.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Georgia

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Wk. 3 – Texas Tech @ Arkansas

Is Arkansas all it’s cracked up to be or will head coach Kliff Kingsbury show he has the Red Raiders pointed in the right direction?

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Arkansas

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Wk. 3 – California @ Texas

One of the most underrated offensive teams matches up against an underrated defensive team.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Texas

***

Wk. 4 – Utah @ Oregon

Utah wants to show it can compete for the Pac-12, no better way to show that than an upset over the defending conference champion with significant personnel losses.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Oregon

***

Wk. 4 – Mississippi State @ Auburn

If Dak Prescott can’t take down one trendy SEC West pick he will get a second shot two weeks later.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Auburn

***

Wk. 4 – Texas A&M v. Arkansas (Dallas, TX)

This game was a nailbiter in 2014 and 2015 should be no different.

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Texas A&M

***

Wk. 4 – Tennessee @ Florida

Can the Vols reverse a decade of dominance by the Gators in this rivalry?

Whiskey Influenced Pick: Tennessee

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