Welcome to the inaugural Gridiron Gambling Guide, henceforth known as “The Triple G” at SEC Country.
Your experts this season are Christopher Smith (@csmithSEC), a man known for his sterling career record against the spread, and Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff), a much younger and handsomer Smith who picked the 2013 NFL playoffs surprisingly well before his personal website fell victim to annual fee evasion (RIP, QBIndex.com).
Here are your winning numbers for this weekend’s games:
Appalachian State at Tennessee (-20.5)
Alex: Before Butch Jones’ team faces the SEC meat grinder (vs. Florida, at Georgia, at A&M, vs. Alabama to open conference play), it has a slate of three winnable games that could allow the Vols to get some momentum rolling.
But no Tennessee fan should be putting “App State” and “gimmie” in the same sentence. This game has an eerie similarity to the Mountaineers’ shocking upset at No. 5 Michigan … exactly 9 years ago to the day.
If Josh Dobbs and Co. blow this one, Knoxville will likely burn to the ground. Let’s keep it standing, guys.
Tennessee 27, Appalachian State 17
Christopher: I completely disagree that this game resembles Appalachian State-Michigan in 2007 (coincidentally, a game in which current UT assistants Mike DeBord and Steve Stripling coached — for the losing Wolverines).
That Mountaineers team competed at the FCS level. This Mountaineers team has won 17 of 19 as an FBS member. The team finished sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game last year, in between Oregon and LSU.
I appointed myself conductor of the Tennessee hype train long before the Vols’ locomotive picked up national steam. Adding hyper-aggressive Bob Shoop to an already-good defense, the best running offense in the SEC and a solid senior quarterback is a good recipe. Tennessee came within one play of beating two playoff teams and the SEC East winner last year.
This could be UT’s fifth-toughest game of the season. Don’t start chasing Butch Jones off of Rocky Top if this one stays close.
Tennessee 31, Appalachian State 13
South Carolina at Vanderbilt (-4)
Alex: Neither team has reason to expect consistent quarterback play, so I’m counting on the program with more difference-makers to take control of this one.
Vanderbilt may be woeful when it tries to pass the ball, but it returns star running back Ralph Webb and some crucial talent on the defensive side. The Commodores “D” was one of the nation’s best in 2015, and players such as All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham and All-SEC safety/linebacker Oren Burks should shut down the ‘Cocks in Nashville.
Vanderbilt 20, South Carolina 10
Christopher: These two teams should issue a heartfelt thanks to the schedule-makers for placing this contest on the opening Thursday. Casual SEC fans, especially in the West Division, should not watch these two programs play another game.
South Carolina lost its three best offensive skill players in Pharoh Cooper, Jerell Adams and Brandon Wilds — then added Will Muschamp and Kurt Roper, who failed miserably with Florida’s offensive skill players just two years ago.
At least Derek Mason and his Vanderbilt Commodores play sound defense. This was a sneaky-tough team last year. Offensive continuity, and a terrific Ralph Webb, are enough to reverse the outcome of a game I thought Vandy should’ve won last year.
Vanderbilt 21, South Carolina 14
South Alabama at Mississippi State (-28.5)
Alex: After a few minutes of research, I’ve concluded that South Alabama doesn’t have the pedigree to warrant upset talk. The Jaguars have yet to finish a season above .500 at the FBS level (0-for-4), and they lost a pair of games to major-conference schools last year (Nebraska and North Carolina State, both unranked) by a combined score of 111-22.
Mississippi State’s offense will use this game as an opportunity to build chemistry.
Mississippi State 44, South Alabama 20
Christopher: Welcome to 2016 A.D., Mississippi State fans. That’s “After Dak,” Mr. Stingray.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, USA is a Sun Belt foe that finished 6-6, 6-7 and 5-7 in the last three seasons. Dak and the ’14 Mississippi State team hammered the Jaguars, 35-3, in Mobile, Ala. This one’s in Starkville.
South Alabama will find itself at a major disadvantage at the line of scrimmage. Coach Dan Mullen may look to re-establish the running game and ease his new quarterback into the role.
Mississippi State 38, South Alabama 10
Missouri at West Virginia (-10)
Alex: The first year of the Barry Odom Era likely will be defined by how quickly quarterback Drew Lock can drag the Tigers offense out of the netherworld.
That might be easier than expected against West Virginia, which lost eight starters from a defense that ranked No. 83 in the passing game last season. The Mountaineers are semi-established on offense, with returning starters at quarterback, all three wideout spots and four-fifths of the line. But neither “O” is exciting.
I’m expecting a low-scoring game in Morgantown, with special teams giving the home squad a late edge.
West Virginia 16, Missouri 14
Christopher: Sorry, Alex. But your alma mater is abysmal, part of the four-team dead weight ensuring the chasm between the SEC East and West remains in place.
I expect marginal progress from Drew Lock and a historically-bad offense. But the defense that kept Mizzou competitive in 2015 lost Kentrell Brothers, Walter Brady and Harold Brantley. This is Barry Odom’s first year as a head coach, and we can’t forget that now-retired Gary Pinkel has an argument as the most accomplished in program history.
On the other sideline, should the home team lose, dozens of Mountaineers are going to douse couches in gasoline and light them on fire. And then hope that some of the sparks make their way to the crazed wisps of hair protruding from the head of Dana Holgorsen. West Virginia should enter this game as the more desperate side.
Add to that the return of a 3,100-yard passer (Skyler Howard) surrounded by an experienced group of skill players, and I believe West Virginia will humble Mizzou.
West Virginia 28, Missouri 17
LSU (-10) vs. Wisconsin
Alex: If any team can figure out Dave Aranda’s LSU defense this year, it should be Wisconsin, the school that employed Aranda for several years while he built his reputation as a defensive guru. Problem is: The Badgers don’t have much firepower on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Bart Houston has attempted only 51 career passes, and Wisconsin’s typically reliable running game ranked No. 95 in the country last year.
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has enough front-seven talent to slow down (not stop) Leonard Fournette, but it seems as if Wisconsin will have trouble winning small battles across the board — let alone the war — vs. über-talented LSU at Lambeau Field.
LSU 41, Wisconsin 17
Christopher: Other than the location — this should feel like a road game — this is a perfect matchup for LSU.
The Tigers lifted Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator this offseason. Both teams would prefer to run the ball and play great defense, but Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice both wear purple and gold. The Badgers don’t have the explosiveness to worry coach Les Miles’ team.
Wisconsin’s linebackers are decent, so don’t expect 200 yards for Fournette. But LSU enters this game with supreme confidence.
LSU 24, Wisconsin 10
UCLA at Texas A&M (-3)
Alex: Most of the hype surrounding this matchup has to do with Josh Rosen, the Sports Illustrated cover boy who’s established himself as UCLA’s next big thing.
But fans looking for firepower should pay more attention to the home team, which features All-SEC candidate Trevor Knight at quarterback and the country’s best wide receiver quartet.
Detractors of Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin point to his poor November record, but he knows how to start fast. The Aggies are a combined 18-2 in their first five games of the season since Sumlin came to town. We should get a barn-burner in College Station.
Texas A&M 43, UCLA 34
Christopher: The Bruins are the ranked team this preseason (AP No. 16). Yet the Aggies, which lifted former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone this offseason, are favored at home.
Josh Rosen is one of the nation’s best 15 quarterbacks. But UCLA lost three of his top four receivers as well as running back Paul Perkins. Meanwhile, we enter Year 2 of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ time in College Station, and the play of the Aggies’ linebackers and defensive backs should creep toward respectable.
Texas A&M was one of the most dysfunctional teams in the SEC during the second half of last season. Trevor Knight seems to be a much better leader at quarterback. He doesn’t have to be an All-American to succeed with these wideouts.
The Aggies could be a surprise team in the SEC West, and continue their recent tradition of white-hot starts in this one.
Texas A&M 28, UCLA 24
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas (-26)
Alex: Razorbacks fans would love it if last year’s Toledo game were lost in the sands of time, but it’s tough to project an easy Arkansas non-conference win after last September’s ugly 16-12 collapse.
Louisiana Tech is no pushover program, either. The Bulldogs have won 18 games and a pair of bowl games in the last two seasons.
It lost a large chunk of last year’s starters, including eight on defense, which means new Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen should be clear to show off his arm in the opener (provided the football gods don’t strike again).
Arkansas 52, Louisiana Tech 24
Christopher: Louisiana Tech peaked in 2015 with Jeff Driskel and Kenneth Dixon. It did allow just 3.5 rushing yards per game last year, which will be worth watching here.
Arkansas’ offensive line got publicity the last few years, but it wasn’t as effective as it was humongous. Brandon Allen and Alex Collins are gone, so the Razorbacks may be inclined to lean on a deep backfield. If the line finds a way to push around what has been a stingy Louisiana Tech run defense, the Hogs can feed in the fourth quarter.
I’m looking forward to the debut of running back Devwah Whaley, which would become a significant distinction within the next few seasons.
Arkansas 38, Louisiana Tech 13
Georgia (-2.5) vs. North Carolina
Alex: Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels are underdogs again after reeling off 11 straight victories and nearly winning the ACC championship last year. But Georgia is also able to play the underdog card in 2016, having parted ways with coach Mark Richt and (presumably) handed the keys to 5-star freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
This is perhaps the most evenly-matched SEC game on opening weekend, and the winner will get a valuable boost to its College Football Playoff résumé.
I’m taking running back Elijah Hood and the Heels in a tight one.
North Carolina 33, Georgia 30
Christopher: Georgia is a bigger threat to Tennessee than Florida this year. But the Bulldogs’ front-loaded schedule is unfortunate, especially with the team poised to groom true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason at some point.
UGA’s entire offseason centered around the health of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, whether Eason will start immediately and the presence of new head coach Kirby Smart. I’m more concerned with the team’s defense in this first game.
Elijah Hood and Ryan Switzer are as good of a running back/receiver combo as Georgia will see this year. The Bulldogs’ front seven got demolished by graduation. And outstanding coordinator Jeremy Pruitt migrated to Tuscaloosa.
North Carolina’s season outlook is similar to that of Georgia. The Tar Heels look to be headed for nine wins or so. This is the definition of a tossup. But the enormous spring game attendance (and energy) that Smart conjured, and the “neutral” location in Atlanta, makes me think that Georgia’s fresh start will give the team too much of a boost.
Georgia 28, North Carolina 27
UMass at Florida (-36.5)
Alex: Sometimes, it’s better to open with a supposed cupcake than square off against a top-25 opponent in Week 1.
Florida has most of the pieces in place to repeat as SEC East champs, but quarterback Luke Del Rio will need some time to prove he can lead the Gators back to Atlanta. UMass is the perfect “gimmie” game. The Minutemen are a hapless bunch that return only six starters from last year’s 3-9 squad. The Swamp is going to like what it sees this weekend.
Florida 55, UMass 14
Christopher: At the end of last season, Florida tanked harder than the housing market in 2007. The Gators struggled with Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic before getting hammered by three consecutive ranked opponents.
Jim McElwain’s team needs to run up the score and create some buzz in the season opener.
This year’s team will go as far as quarterback Luke Del Rio takes it, and this is a great spot to get him confidence. UMass just got excommunicated from the MAC, and that’s all you need to know about the Minutemen. (Seriously. They’re now independent.)
Florida 63, UMass 10
Southern Miss at Kentucky (-6.5)
Alex: Mark Stoops needs to win six games this season, and everybody in the Bluegrass state knows it. Despite the favorable framework (home game vs. a C-USA team), Kentucky will find it hard to pull away from quarterback Nick Mullens and the Golden Eagles and get victory No. 1 on its slow march to the Birmingham Bowl.
In fact, I think the pesky Southern Miss offense will get the Eagles out to a fourth-quarter lead before Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker conducts a crucial winning drive. Stoops gets a big scare, but fans don’t need to start camping for basketball tickets just yet.
Kentucky 21, Southern Miss 20
Christopher: The aforementioned Nick Mullens threw for 4,476 yards last year. Oh, and he’s a graduate of Hoover (Ala.) High School. Always enjoy seeing fellow Buccaneers do big things.
This game is closer to a tossup than it is a Kentucky romp. The Wildcats have collected better talent, but to this point, this Golden Eagles staff has squeezed more out of its roster.
Mark Stoops would be coaching for his job this season after consecutive late-season collapses. UK is searching for its first bowl appearance since 2010. Stoops’ ginormous buyout assures that he’ll last until 2017 no matter what the result. But the outcome of this 2016 season may hinge on this opener. Lose, and Kentucky could again struggle to make the postseason.
This team has been much better at home and early in the schedule, so I think they’ll pull it out.
Kentucky 28, Southern Miss 24
Alabama (-11.5) vs. USC
Alex: Southern Cal has the talent to pull an upset, but it’s not on the same level as previous teams that have tried — and failed, miserably — to take a neutral-site game against the SEC’s kingpin.
The Crimson Tide will debut their new backfield against the Trojans, but it’s the “knowns” that should make this another Alabama smackdown: The country’s most talented defense, an elite group of wide receivers and the mystical “Process” will move Nick Saban to 10-0 in Alabama openers.
Alabama 38, USC 24
Christopher: Alabama’s unprecedented streak of 72 consecutive games as the betting favorite ended last fall (at Georgia). But look up “public team” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Nick Saban, who has claimed four of the last seven national titles with the Tide.
Saban is 52-4 with three national championships in four seasons with a first-year starting quarterback. Whomever starts will get to throw to arguably the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC.
There are other concerns. The defensive front seven isn’t as deep. For the first time, Alabama can’t hand the baton from one proven superstar running back (Derrick Henry) to another. And the offensive line lost Ryan Kelly, a first-round pick at center, and Dominick Jackson, an underrated run blocker at right tackle. Just before game week, Bama made an unexpected change at center.
As good as Calvin Ridley is, USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster may be the best receiver on the field.
Alabama’s pass rush will be too much for first-year Trojans starting quarterback Max Browne, who just lost senior left tackle Chad Wheeler, a 34-game starter, to injury. But this won’t be the typical breezy double-digit romp over a ranked opponent that Bama is used to celebrating to open the season.
Alabama 27, USC 20
Clemson (-7.5) at Auburn
Alex: This being the final nationally-televised game on Saturday night, the college football world wants to see a close game.
But Clemson won’t comply. Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and his band of Tigers will have Auburn fans leaving early and calling for Gus Malzahn’s job on the way home.
Auburn has plenty of talent — and might factor into the SEC West race in 2016 — but this is about as tough of a home opener as one could draw up. Clemson is bringing back several of the stars from its 14-1 team, with none bigger than Watson, who will rack up more than 300 total yards before watching most of the fourth quarter from the sideline.
Clemson 45, Auburn 13
Christopher: Clemson returns perhaps the best player in college football (DeShaun Watson) on a team that came within one play of beating Alabama for the national title.
Auburn lost its top three rushers (in a run-first offense, all three with eligibility remaining), traded Will Muschamp for Kevin Steele at defensive coordinator and still hasn’t resolved its post-Nick Marshall quarterback conundrum. Not the most inspiring offseason for a head coach in jeopardy and a team that finished last season at the Birmingham Bowl.
The good news? It’s the season opener, so Auburn fans can count on at least one healthy half for Carl Lawson. And Clemson did lose seven NFL draft picks from its defense, which got ransacked by the pros after 2014 as well.
The Gus Bus is leaving the station for the last time, I think. More good news: This is probably the last Auburn coach that Nick Saban will run out of town.
Clemson 35, Auburn 24
Ole Miss vs. Florida State (-4.5)
Alex: Florida State is strong all over, but Ole Miss holds a huge advantage at the most crucial position: quarterback. Chad Kelly will need to pick up where he left off last year (4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns) if the Rebels are to keep this one close.
Kelly has plenty of help around him — and on the defensive side of the ball — but one unit that might break down is his inexperienced offensive line.
The Seminoles will give redshirt freshman DeAndre Francois (zero career starts) the keys, and the dual-threat quarterback feels like a boom or bust candidate on Labor Day. If Francois is the real deal, I think Florida State might be the best team in the country. Another SEC-ACC matchup, another “W” for the Atlantic Coast.
Florida State 30, Ole Miss 21
Christopher: The perception of Ole Miss has been exceedingly negative this offseason. The Rebels lost Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell. A draft-night horror show involving Tunsil’s social media accounts preceded steady updates about the ongoing NCAA investigation into some of the team’s recruiting practices.
Speaking of recruiting, many people forget how well the Rebels have done on that front in the last four years.
Team A: No. 6, No. 17, No. 15, No. 8.
Team B: No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 11.
Some are calling Team B — Florida State — the most talented team in the country this year. But Ole Miss’ depth and talent level, even with the big-name losses, arguably is as good as it has ever been. Add to that a big advantage at quarterback in Chad Kelly, and these two teams are closer than many are saying.
I’m betting against the public on this one, although I’ll hedge by picking FSU straight up.
Florida State 34, Ole Miss 31