We finally did it! College football is back, and so is MC&J. Things are going to be a little different this year (aside from how this year is going to feature many more wins than last year). Instead of one post each week, there will be two! Instead of jamming all the picks in one post, this year will feature the national games of the week on Thursday, followed by the Big Ten games on Friday. With Michigan and Minnesota kicking off tonight, early on there will be some Big Ten games mixed on Thursday, but it'll work itself out.
Enough about all that boring stuff, let's get to this week's action!
Last season ATS: 99-119-1 (49-58-1 National, 50-61 B1G)
National Games (All games Saturday unless otherwise noted):
North Carolina v. South Carolina (-3) - Thursday 6:00 p.m. - ESPN
Even though these teams aren't ranked, I figured this matchup had to be included just since it is the kickoff of the FBS season.
The good news for South Carolina is they have eight starters returning on defense. The bad news is last year's defense allowed 84 plays of 20+ yards, which was only topped by New Mexico for worst among FBS teams. North Carolina returns quarterback Marquise Williams and plenty of other talent at their skill positions, which means the Gamecocks are going to face an early test to see if they've been able to fix some of their problems from last year during the offseason.
North Carolina's defense wasn't much to write home about last year either, but they did hire former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator. South Carolina's Connor Mitch will be making his first start at quarterback for a Gamecock offense that only has four returning starters. Luckily for Mitch, one of those returning starters is wide receiver Pharoh Cooper.
This game is in Charlotte so there's not much to speak of in terms of home-field advantage, and from the sounds of it there are going to be plenty of empty seats. With how Larry Fedora's offense should be able to move the football, I like the points in this one, with North Carolina pulling out a close game in the last few minutes.
North Carolina 31, South Carolina 27
Louisville v. No. 6 Auburn (-11) - 3:30 p.m. - CBS
Even with slumping to the finish line last year, culminated by a loss to Wisconsin on New Year's Day, Auburn is one of the hot picks this year to make the College Football Playoff. The big problem last year with Auburn was with their dumpster fire defense, but they've taken a big step in trying to fix that problem by hiring Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. With quarterback Jeremy Johnson it almost feels like Auburn has a Cam Newton clone, so if the Tigers can get their defense in gear they could be very scary this year.
Louisville comes into the season with a three-way battle at quarterback, but they do have a strong defense that was ranked sixth in the country last year. While the Cardinals did lose Gerod Holliman, who picked off 14 passes last year, they do gain the transfers of defensive end Devonte Fields from TCU, as well as safety Josh Harvey-Clemons from Georgia.
Even with the defense that Louisville has, I'm still a little leery of their ability to keep pace offensively. With the scheme Gus Malzahn and company run, I think they'll be able to make plays even with the talent the Cardinals possess. The addition of Muschamp won't immediately stop the bleeding of the Auburn defense, but it'll definitely slow it considerably from where it was at last year. The Tigers top the Cardinals by two touchdowns in Atlanta.
Auburn 38, Louisville 24
No. 15 Arizona State v. Texas A&M (-3) - 7:00 p.m. - ESPN
Technically this might be a neutral site game since it is being played in Houston, but let's not kid ourselves if we are thinking it essentially anything other than a glorified home game for Texas A&M. Kyle Allen had a couple impressive games late in the year after taking over for Kenny Hill at quarterback, so the offense shouldn't be a question for the Aggies. The defense? That's another story. Texas A&M did hire defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU and has Myles Garrett, who racked up 11.5 sacks last year, at defensive end, but it's going to take a lot more than that to improve on a unit that allowed at least 30 points in six of their last eight games last year.
No Taylor Kelly for Arizona State anymore? Might not be a problem for the Sun Devils. After throwing for 488 yards against UCLA and 510 against USC while filling in for an injured Kelly last year, Mike Bercovici has the starting quarterback job all to himself this year. Also back for the Sun Devils is D.J. Foster, who not only ran for over 1,000 yards last year, but also caught 62 passes last year.
Hopefully nobody is tuning into this contest to see a defensive struggle, because if they are they'll be sadly disappointed. This has the makings of being a shootout in Houston and for some reason I'm seeing Texas A&M coming out on top of this game even though some are tabbing Arizona State as a darkhorse candidate to make the College Football Playoff.
Texas A&M 41, Arizona State 34
Texas v. No. 11 Notre Dame (-10) - 7:30 p.m. - NBC
Charlie Strong starts his second year at Texas with quite a tough task by having to take his team on the road to face Notre Dame under the lights. Texas was just 6-7 in Strong's first year, and expectations don't sound too high this year, while Notre Dame has College Football Playoff aspirations.
The Longhorns sound like they'll use both Tyrone Swoopes, who started 12 games last year, and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard at quarterback. This year could very well be much the same as last year for Texas, with the Longhorns struggling to score most of the year. At least they do have a strong running game with senior Johnathan Gray at running back, but teams might be able to load up against the run with the lack of much of a passing game.
Unlike Texas, Notre Dame has a clear-cut quarterback choice in Malik Zaire. In the Music City Bowl against LSU, Zaire impressed in leading the Fighting Irish to a win over Les Miles' team. While Zaire is immensely talented, he is still young, and it seems right up Charlie Strong's alley to put a lot of pressure on Zaire in just his second career start.
Even though the Texas defense will keep them in games, it's just too hard to expect them to keep up with Notre Dame. I just get the feeling the echoes will be woken under the lights, with the Fighting Irish putting some distance on the Longhorns in the second half.
Notre Dame 28, Texas 13
Big Ten Games (Both games are Thursday):
Michigan v. Utah (-5) - 8:30 p.m. - Fox Sports 1
Fox Sports and their khaki bus get to kickoff their season with the return of Jim Harbaugh to the college ranks. Harbaugh has spent the offseason getting after it in satellite camps with the intensity unknown to man, or 1000 suns, or whatever he was talking about, while pissing of Colin Cowherd. Too bad he coaches Michigan or I'd probably like him a lot more.
The Wolverines will head into Salt Lake City with Shanke Morrudock taking the snaps at quarterback. Apparently both Shane Morris and Jake Rudock know who will start for Michigan, but we don't. So until then I'll just assume they are just one quarterback merged together. The running back position for the Wolverines is even more crowded, which in this case is a good problem to have, since all four backs could make a positive impact.
The Wolverines may have a logjam at running back, but Utah needs only one to make a difference. Devontae Booker rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns. Travis Wilson returns for his 19 year as starter for the Utes, so there is considerable stability in the Utah backfield. Kyle Whittingham's team will need someone on defense to step up to replace the pressure Nate Orchard created, but Hunter Dimick, who registered 10 sacks last year, could be up to the task.
Going to Utah is never easy, but this just feels like a game that ends up being decided by a last minute field goal. Harbaugh's debut for the Wolverines comes up just a tad short.
Utah 23, Michigan 20
No. 2 TCU (-17) v. Minnesota - 9:00 p.m. - ESPN
After missing out on the College Football Playoff last year to a Big Ten team, TCU will be trying to take out some frustrations to start the season when they take on Minnesota. The Horned Frogs come into the season with their highest preseason ranking in school history, and will surely want to leave little doubt all year to make up for their lack of a conference championship game.
TCU may have beat Minnesota 30-7 last year in Fort Worth, but the score doesn't look terribly bad when considering the Horned Frogs finished the year by scoring 46.5 points per game. The Golden Gophers will definitely need Breian Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray to be strong in the defensive backfield to try and slow the start to Trevone Boykin's Heisman campaign.
It's going to be hard to see Minnesota keeping up with a TCU offense that has scored at least 30 points in 15 games, especially after the Golden Gophers lost running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL. Mitch Leidnar is back again to start at quarterback, and I really don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I really want to take Minnesota to cover the spread here, but for some reason as much as I try to talk myself into it, I just can't. I'm sure this will end up with everybody on upset alert just six hours into the college football season, so you're welcome for the jinx.
TCU 38, Minnesota 17