Every Friday, Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Strauss — aka “El Diablo” — jumps into the fire by handicapping some of the weekend’s biggest football games.
The NCAA achieved peace in our time by devising a four-team tournament to replace the Bowl Championship Series as the method for determining its top division national champion. At least that’s the gruel we’ve been fed for several months now.
Of course, asking a committee to determine the top four teams in the land merely shifts the argument. Are we to believe two, three or eight teams won’t feel aggrieved by a “transparent” process ripe for horse-trading and bias?
We applaud Condoleezza Rice on her membership at Augusta National. The former Secretary of State served as honorary U.S. Curtis Cup Captain a few months back at St. Louis Country Club. She loves golf and plays a mean piano. But serving on a committee charged with determining the four best college football teams? We shall see.
Regardless of what we might think about the new process, it’s difficult to challenge the notion that a more subjective process invites emphasis on style points.
In handicapping terms, of course, that means running up a score.
Just as it’s difficult not to believe the current format anything but a first step toward an 8- or 12- or 16-team tournament, it’s easy to see how the system will lead to griping about teams throwing the ball in the fourth quarter to further pad a 35-point lead. Such opportunities typically abound in the season’s early weeks.
We re-enter the Inferno and its promises of Free Money so warned. Those familiar with last season’s selections should recall heavy reliance on Missouri, who should have been renamed the Cash Cows. Truman was 10-1-1 against the number entering December’s SEC Championship. They neatly fit the description of a projected second-tier team that evolved into a power entity. Finding such teams early is the definition of free money, just as exposing a fraud before the masses catch offers a financial rush.
Week One always presents unique challenges. One tries to separate hype and reputation from reality.
Is Virginia a bad team or an awful one? How heavily reliant was Texas A&M on Johnny Manziel and favored receiver Mike Evans? Since good teams win and great ones cover, is Florida State truly great? Could Louisville with Bobby Petrino represent value hidden in tall bluegrass?
This year Diablo’s Inferno will hit the hole more quickly. Today’s preamble aside, the hope is to offer advice to make you the cool guy or gal at the water cooler or, better yet, the “investor” most feared by The Man.
We also take care to recognize that “Gambling is illegal at Bushwood, sir, and I never slice.” So keep in mind all suggestions are for entertainment purposes only.
Here are Week One’s offerings. Enjoy.
• FRIDAY Free Money
Arizona -23.5 vs. UNLV
The Wildcats are considered a high-powered breakout possibility this season. They also destroyed the Rebels by 45 points last season at UNLV. Vegas is an improving program but they have far to go before challenging a rising Pac-12 entry. Some uncertainty at quarterback and losing rusher Ka’Deem Carey to the Chicago Bears may suppress this number. But unless Arizona tilts toward fraud status they should roll an outgunned opponent at home. Heavy turnover potential on both sides here.
• SATURDAY Free Money
Baylor -33 vs. SMU
The Bears are playing this season with a chip on their shoulder. They fit the description of a talented, entertaining team accorded lesser attention than Big 12 rivals Oklahoma and Texas. This is a team that needs style points to go with a gaudy record. Baylor scored 69, 70, 70 and 73 points in its first four games last season. They are also 21-5-1 against the number in their last 27 games in Waco. SMU is 7-18-1 versus the spread in its last 26 games against Big 12 foes and got exposed in-state early last season by TCU, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Too little has changed to alter the balance of power here. Art Briles may release the hounds here in a name-your-score opener.
LSU -5 vs. Wisconsin
Expect plenty of rushing yardage in this tilt. The Bayou Bengals boast one of the deepest running attacks in the nation. Super frosh Leonard Fournette is rated a transformative talent yet waits his turn behind Terrance McGee as feature back. The Badgers return Melvin Gordon. LSU has won 45 consecutive non-conference games. Wisconsin is on a 34-2 non-con run. The game is technically at a neutral site but Houston’s Reliant Stadium should be far more welcoming to the SEC squad. Usually stout defensively, Wisconsin is transitioning and should be vulnerable on the road against a deep, punishing ground game. Wisconsin is coming off a season in which its signature win was either Iowa or BYU. LSU beat Auburn and A&M while suffering all three of its losses on the road.
Central Florida +2 vs. Penn State
A game that takes place in Ireland offers Central Florida head coach George O’Leary a chance to prove last year’s club was more than Blake Bortles and the Juniors. Central Florida is coming off a 12-1 season that included a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. Penn State was 7-5, changed coaches and wears the label of a wildly inconsistent team able to beat Wisconsin but unable to handle Minnesota or Indiana on the road. These teams combined for 962 yards in UCF’s 34-31 win last season. Line moves suggest steady support for the Nittany Lions, who last month opened as underdogs in some books.
Virginia +21.5 vs. UCLA
The Cavaliers (2-10 in ’13) are not good and head coach Mike London might be elsewhere if not for a contract that contains a poison pill buyout. But Virginia is at home and has a way of playing its best early. It defeated Brigham Young in its opener last season. Several years ago UVa. played USC to a field goal in Los Angeles on Week One. UCLA rivals Oregon as this year’s chic West Coast team. Junior quarterback Brett Hundley is back, adding to the Bruins’ offensive promise. This line has crashed in recent weeks, so some may see value in the visitors. However, the fluctuating line is likely more indicative of an oversold high-gloss team that failed to travel well early last season.
IF YOU MUST:
Alabama -26 vs. West Virginia
The Mountaineers were horrific on defense last year and don’t appear equipped to hold down Bama’s grinding run game. Quarterback Clint Trickett is the Big 12 entry’s only hope. Not here.
Northwestern – 10.5 vs. California
The Wildcats were a money-burner last season, going 1-9 in their last 10 against the number. California has covered in only one of its last seven non-conference games and was arguably one of the 10 worst BCS programs last season. Northwestern has a bad habit of losing control of games in the fourth quarter; however, they shake the choke reputation in this game against a Pac-12 bottom-feeder that lost its five road conference games last season by an average 31.4 points.
Clemson +7.5 at Georgia
The Inferno likes this as most entertaining game of the week. Points offer value but Georgia is the more known quantity as its rival to the north must find a way to stuff a running game led by healthy Todd Gurley, who ran for 154 yards in Clemson’s win last Aug. 31. Both teams start new quarterbacks. Them ‘Dawgs were a money pit last season but are their conference’s most intriguing team this summer. The pick is presented because of the game’s visibility. Tread lightly.
Arkansas +18 at Auburn
It’s difficult to envision an upset here but the Razorbacks (0-8 in league in ’13) pose the kind of deep running game that can keep Auburn’s explosive offense off the field. Intrigue surrounds how long Tigers coach Gus Malzahn will bench quarterback Nick Marshall due to a cannabis-related infraction. Arkansas QB Brandon Allen had his vehicle torched this week. In other words. life as usual in the SEC.
Florida St. -17.5 vs. Oklahoma St.
This might have stayed interesting for a half last season but the Cowboys are in transition. That is not a good place to be against a defending national champion that returns its Heisman quarterback and a penchant for running it up whenever possible. The Seminoles have won their last four season openers by an average 45 points. They won’t get there in this tilt; however, a three-touchdown margin seems doable. Special teams could help FSU pad the score.
Mizzou vs. South Dakota State
Are you kidding me? Jackrabbit soup.
Next week’s highlights: Toe meets leather in the pro game as Shaun Hill’s St. Louis Rams host Minnesota; Holy Toledo, Mizzou does the MAC.
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