Exhale. We made it, everyone.
College football is back in earnest with the first full Saturday of the 2018 season.
The next 14 weeks have a lofty standard in order to meet last season’s chaos and intrigue, but I feel confident 2018 can match it. I am less confident in the Saturday Six-Pack as a result. But you know what? That’s OK!
For first-time readers of The Open Man Saturday Six-Pack, we examine six of the most high-profile, potentially entertaining games of the college football docket, provide some background analysis and tidbits, and offer a pick. Records are tracked all season long, with the necessary disclaimer that the Saturday Six-Pack exists for information and entertainment. You will never be directed to click an affiliate link on an offshore book or asked to buy picks.
With all that out of the way, I may be nervous about my predictions each week, but have complete confidence you will enjoy the weekly beer selection. Six-Pack is a double-entendre! So cheers to the season, and cheers to Week 1. Lines are all via the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, and updated immediately before publish.
Saturday’s Six-Pack: Pizza Port Grandview Golden Ale
Newcomers to the Saturday Six-Pack, The Open Man is based in Southern California, near the American epicenter of independent breweries. It seems only fitting to kick off the season with a local recommendation, and it’s a good one.
This is an area known for IPAs, which I enjoy but tend to be divisive. IPAs aren’t always especially good for long, hot, summer days. Pizza Port’s one of the best Southern California breweries at producing both hoppy IPAs, as well as refreshing, lighter beers. Grandview Golden Ale leans more to the latter side, but with an ever-so-slight bitterness comparable to an IPA.
Grandview is, for me, a quintessential football-weekend beer.
No. 6 WASHINGTON vs. No. 9 AUBURN
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: Auburn -2
Without question, the game that most excites me on the Week 1 calendar. National media heaped abuse on the Pac-12 throughout the offseason — and while much of it was certainly deserved, coming off a historically woeful 1-8 bowl season — it reached a point of straight-up Chicken Little’ing. Washington’s had to carry the brunt of that weight.
I wrote last month that while it isn’t fair to assign the Huskies the responsibility of determining the entire conference’s fate but that’s exactly what’s happened. This feels asinine, but in a sport where personalities and influencers wield far more power, the Chick-Fil-A Classic feels as if it’s already been designated a Playoff-elimination game for the entire Pac-12.
Yes, it’s irrational and illogical, but I have covered the sport long enough to err on the side of the illogical and irrational when projecting what may occur. But for as much as the Huskies stand to lose, Washington planting a purple-and-gold flag in the heart of SEC country is just as valuable, on the flip side.
The Huskies arrive in Atlanta boasting a make-up comparable to the SEC ideal: athletic, ball-hawking defense; a road-paving offensive line that builds holes for an effective and persistent rushing attack. Washington’s style is designed to wear down opponents, and that’s precisely when the offensive sucker punches for which Chris Petersen-coached teams have been known come into play.
Auburn can match Washington’s defensive athleticism. The x-factor will be how effectively Gus Malzahn and Co. replicate the production lost from Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, and the progress quarterback Jarrett Stidham made after a promising 2017.
Despite being an ostensible road game — Chris Petersen laughed this week asked how he felt about playing a “neutral-site” game — Washington’s returning experience gives it the edge. I also like the Huskies offense *just enough* more than the Tigers defense.
PREDICTION: WASHINGTON 24, AUBURN 21
No. 17 WEST VIRGINIA vs. TENNESSEE
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Line: West Virginia -9.5
Tennessee’s offseason exhausted me. Hell, we hadn’t even yet reached the offseason — well, Tennessee had; the Vols’ 2017 was over the moment they failed to run John Kelly in the red zone, then gave up a game-ending touchdown to Florida. But I digress.
Anyway, most of college football remained in-season the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My wife, son and I made the roughly two-hour drive from our home to Palm Desert to spend a few days with my visiting parents before I headed to the Bay Area for the Pac-12 Championship.
In the time it took us to drive, pick up a few snacks at a local grocery store, check into the hotel and get settled, Tennessee hired then apparently un-hired Greg Schiano in an episode that saw a student protest, a barrage of Twitter insults launched at various reporters and university officials, and the self-insertion of college football media’s most toxic carnival barker into the center of the controversy.
As Greg Schiano transitioned into Mike Leach, and Mike Leach became … anyone’s guess … the angst of the Vol community galvanized it in a way that, if you aren’t part of it, is frankly a bit off-putting. The eventual hire of Jeremy Pruitt elicited a sigh of relief in that he brings a pedigree similar to that of Kirby Smart at Georgia, having worked alongside Nick Saban. He’s a national championship-winning assistant, and the kind of personality SEC fan bases love (when it’s their team’s coach).
But the Tennessee job differs vastly from Georgia. Mark Richt had Georgia on the cusp of title contention, and Smart simply provided that extra push to get the Bulldogs one play away from the pinnacle. Tennessee enters its 10th year of underachievement.
The situation isn’t as dire as when Butch Jones replaced Derek Dooley; Jones recruited infinitely better, and Tennessee was done in more by malaise and strategic miscues than talent. However, this particular Vols team isn’t equipped to match a legitimate Big 12 title contender.
West Virginia returns one of the more veteran rosters in the Big 12, particularly on offense where Dana Holgorsen-coached teams shine. Tennessee loses most of its starting defense, in contrast, and will struggle to keep Will Grier from putting up monster numbers. I don’t love the Mountaineers defense, and ultimately believe it keeps them from earnestly contending for the Big 12 crown, but I’m not any higher on the Tennessee offense.
PREDICTION: WEST VIRGINIA 42, TENNESSEE 20
No. 22 BOISE STATE at TROY
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
Line: Boise State -10
Two of the most talented defenses in the Group of Five highlight a real gem on Saturday’s slate. Troy was one of the most fun stories of the 2017 season, emerging to win 11 games — including spoiling LSU’s homecoming — and claiming a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship.
Coach Neal Brown replaced Larry Blakeney, a legendary figure in the program’s history (the field now bares his name). He arrived with a track record as an offensive mind, a former understudy to Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and a former colleague of Tony Franklin. However, Troy’s defense made the Trojans championship caliber in 2017, and defense again defines this New Year’s Six dark horse.
Troy’s standout on the defensive side is cornerback Blace Brown, who in last season’s matchup with Boise State, intercepted quarterback Brett Rypien. Brown also secured Troy’s signature win last season with a pick at LSU.
Despite the departure of All-American linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State isn’t lacking for playmakers on its own defensive lineup. Kekoa Nawahine, Avery Williams and Tyler Horton are all greedy defensive backs in their own right. With Troy breaking in a new quarterback after Brandon Silvers capably manned the position the last few seasons, points should come at a premium for the Trojans.
PREDICTION: BOISE STATE 24, TROY 17
No. 14 MICHIGAN at No. 12 NOTRE DAME
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Line: Pick ‘Em
Among my earliest college football memories are of September clashes between bitter rivals Michigan and Notre Dame. Even as I went to college, and the Fighting Irish slipped from national contention (or again as the Charlie Weis era crumbled), their meetings felt like a big deal. Their hiatus was one of the more egregious losses of Playoff reshuffling, as Notre Dame’s brokered agreement to schedule with the ACC put scheduling opportunities at a premium.
Re-adding this rivalry to the calendar is just right. And this first installment back should be a good one.
Michigan and Notre Dame are both teams that could factor into the Playoff conversation, making this perhaps every bit as intriguing and important as Auburn-Washington earlier in the day. And, like the aforementioned Auburn-Washington game, Michigan-Notre Dame should be another defensive struggle.
The Wolverines are stacked on that side of the ball, featuring two of the most talented pass-rushers in college football with Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush needs no formal introduction to Gary; the two are already friends. Wimbush doesn’t need to grow any more familiar with him.
Notre Dame loses a pair of All-Americans from last season’s stellar offensive line. The rest of the unit returns, but Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are two big bodies to replace.
Likewise, the question for Michigan comes down to replacement-level production. New quarterback Shea Patterson flourished for a few games last season at Ole Miss, but struggled down the stretch, throwing three interceptions against LSU in his last appearance with the Rebels. Quarterback were at the heart of Michigan’s failings in 2017, as they had been in 2015 and 2016.
Patterson offers promise for finally remedying that issue, if he can meet his lofty potential. Michigan finally having a wide-receiving corps at full strength should help Patterson’s progress. He won’t put up video-game numbers against an outstanding Notre Dame defense, but throwing to a healthy Tarik Black, as well as Donovan Peoples-Jones, should give Michigan just enough of an advantage to score what would be the biggest win of the Harbaugh era to date.
PREDICTION: MICHIGAN 27, NOTRE DAME 21
No. 25 LSU vs. No. 8 MIAMI
in Arlington, Texas
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 4, at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT
Line: Miami -3.5
For me, Sunday’s prime-time matchup between LSU and Miami comes down to one, irrefutable truth: Mark Richt is simply a better coach than Ed Orgeron. You can probably guess where my prediction is ultimately headed, but I feel the need to expound.
Miami will not rout LSU. We should get a competitive game in spite of the gap, because LSU continues to attract NFL-caliber talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. But the years-long struggle the Tigers have faced mounting anything resembling a competent offense — beyond merely handing the ball off to exceptional running back talent 35 times and asking exceptional offensive linemen to open holes against defenses stacking eight and nine in the box with little threat of an efficient pass.
How LSU has managed to feature elite-level players at virtually every position but quarterback, dating back to Ryan Perrilloux’s dismissal, is baffling. Perhaps Joe Burrow is the answer. He was Ohio State’s third-string quarterback, but then again, so was Cardale Jones at a point.
But the offensive tribulations vexing LSU for the better part of a decade go further than a single position, or one coaching staff. Orgeron scapegoating Matt Canada, one of the profession’s fastest rising stars before last year’s anemic No. 76 scoring offense ranking, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Neither does LSU losing basically every ball-carrier who made meaningful contributions last season.
The Tigers excelled in ball protection a season ago — a byproduct of having to play conservatively, but nevertheless, a worthwhile stat. I don’t expect we’ll see much of the Turnover Chain, if any at all.
But Miami’s defensive talent, including Shaquille Quarterman, Joe Jackson, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, should produce an offensive breakthrough after an initial war of attrition.
PREDICTION: MIAMI 30, LSU 17
No. 20 VIRGINIA TECH at No. 19 FLORIDA STATE
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
Line: Florida State -7
What was, in many ways, Florida State’s worst season in four decades marked an inevitable bottoming-out for the Jimbo Fisher era. Coaching in a legend’s shadow is almost always a career hazard, even for a coach-in-waiting who wins a national championship.
Clemson bypassing Florida State in the ACC hierarchy and last year’s collapse made 2018 the ideal time to inject new blood into the program. New Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart is taking over his fourth different rebuilding project, though the nature of this one differs vastly from the past three — even from Oregon, which some Florida State fans still address through clenched teeth almost four years later.
Western Kentucky was utterly terrible, maybe the worst program in FBS, when Taggart returned to his alma mater. He left it a perennial bowl-game contender. High-potential USF hit hard times after Jim Leavitt’s firing in 2009, but Taggart reset the foundation for a Top 25-caliber program.
Oregon’s one-year regression was deep and sudden. In his first year at the helm, the excellent staff he assembled engineered an immediate defensive turnaround, and were it not for Justin Herbert’s mid-season injury, I posit the Ducks could have won 10 games.
All this is to say that Florida State isn’t a massive undertaking to get back to national championship contention. Taggart’s proven track record for pointing programs back in the right direction should yield fast results. How fast, we’ll see Monday night.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente occupies a role similar to Fisher at Florida State in that both replaced legends. Fuente’s initial few years have added some needed excitement to a program that, in the final stretch of Frank Beamer’s Hall of Fame career, became stagnant.
Fuente’s offensive acumen and the retention of longtime Beamer defensive mastermind Bud Foster meshes in such a way that Virginia Tech has the foundation of returning to the heights reached under Beamer at the turn of the millennium. The key for the Hokies is piecing it all together — and matching the talent of ACC counterparts like Clemson and Florida State, that boast demonstrable talent advantages.
Hokies quarterback Josh Jackson showed lofty potential in his debut campaign. The dual-threat playmaker has the capacity for a special career. Facing Florida State’s talent-rich defense, which returns stud Brian Burns but replaces several other key contributors, presents Jackson a prime opportunity to produce a signature moment.
The more I evaluate this contest, the more convinced I am that it could easily match Washington-Auburn or Michigan-Notre Dame and be Game of the Weekend. The Seminoles defense must set the tone; I suspect Deondre Francois will exhibit some rust in his first game back from season-long injury.
PREDICTION: FLORIDA STATE 38, VIRGINIA TECH 35