R: Oregon State (+8) at Minnesota
It is Tracy Claeys' first year full year as head coach for the Golden Gophers after replacing Jerry Kill halfway through last year. The Gophers benefitted from three close wins but were also competitive against TCU, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio State so it's hard to get a solid grip on where they finished as a team last year.
The offensive line is bruising with four of the buffet busters over 315 pounds. Mitch Leidner is back at quarterback with six other starters. On defense they have six starters coming back, two at each level.
Oregon State is in year two of the transition to Gary Andersen's system. Former Utah State quarterback Darell Garretson will take over the quarterback position and Seth Collins has been moved to wide receiver. Garretson will have a lot of help at receiver with four of the top six Beaver targets back. The offensive line has three starters back also. On defense the Beavers have three players back in the secondary and front seven.
Both teams have head coaches in their second year and closer to the scheme they want to run. The improvement at quarterback for the Beavers and the huge gain in experience top-to-bottom on the depth chart will keep the game close.
S: Oregon State at Minnesota (-8)
The Golden Gophers are tough at home, tough on defense, and showed a propensity for scoring late in the year. This line has moved quickly up to 12 or 13 in some cases, so I think the Gophers have a good chance of winning by double digits.
(That said, I hope for the good of the Pac-12 that the Beavers keep this one tight. Just not wagering on it.)
R: Kansas State (+16) at Stanford
Stanford is a notoriously bad slow starter. Last year, Stanford dropped the opening game to Northwestern in maybe one of the ugliest games I've seen Stanford play since before Jim Harbaugh was the head coach. In 2014 the Cardinal dropped their first game against an FBS opponent when USC beat them 13-10.
Stanford has a new quarterback and two starters back on the offensive line. The Cardinal will be extremely reliant, more than normal, because there is possibly a lack of solid contributors currently at skill positions. They will get better over time but Kansas State always plays solid.
Bill Snyder enters his 25th year at the helm of the Kansas State Wildcats. Quarterback play will improve but the offensive line has some work to do. Kansas State basically runs a nickel package as their base, which could be problematic against Stanford who probably put over 2000 pounds on the field every play. A total of seven starters are back on the Kansas State defense who will have the tough task of stopping McCaffrey's Heisman-hype train.
My concern picking Kansas State to cover is that they have four new starters on the offensive line. But at some point you have to trust Bill Snyder as head coach who somehow makes solid teams that are greater than the sum of their parts. Kansas State just doesn't get blown out early in the year no matter who they are playing. Stanford will win but Kansas State will cover.
S: Kansas State at Stanford (-16)
This is going to be the kind of game that is 17-14 at half, and then Stanford turns on the jets, wears down K-State's defensive front, and wins by 28. Lay the points here. No matter who is under center, Stanford has been recruiting like crazy on the O-Line and has dudes to run behind the O-Line. If McCaffrey gets loose on special teams, even easier for things to go awry for K-State.
R: Clemson (-7) at Auburn
Auburn only beat one ranked team last year and that was to Texas A&M who was in full free fall mode at that point in the year. The defense has a new coordinator since Will Muschamp left to be the head coach at South Carolina, making Kevin Steele the fifth defensive coordinator in six years.
The offense is still a question mark after last year showed that Malzahn can't make anybody look like a superhuman quarterback. Jeremy Johnson and Sean White both struggled last year and White will be taking the snaps again headed into this season. If Sean White doesn't perform well I could see a quick switch to John Franklin III. The offense and defense have six starters back each.
Clemson on the other hand has eight starters back on offense including Heisman front-runner Deshaun Watson. The top rusher and receiver are back this year and the offensive line has three starters back.
The defense has only four starters back with two on the defensive line. The biggest losses in the offseason were Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd leaving for the pros but the front seven remains an experienced group. I like Clemson to excel on offense and force Auburn to be one-dimensional. When Auburn starts to have to pass a lot to catch up then the game will get further out of hand.
S: Clemson at Auburn (+7)
Fully expected this line to be at least 10. The fact that it's not leads me to side with Auburn. Clemson will have to replace a ton of defensive guys this year. Now, given their track record of reloading on defense I don't think this will be a problem, but it may not happen in week one on the road in a raucous environment. Clemson escapes, but the Tigers/War Eagles/Chiziks cover 7 points.
R: UCLA (+2.5) at Texas A&M
Many people are saying that Kevin Sumlin is on the hot seat. Sad! The Aggies will have their top five receivers coming back including Speedy Noil. Trevor Knight will start at quarterback having transferred from Oklahoma but the entire right side of the offensive line will have new starters. Since Manziel left Texas A&M the Aggies dropped from averaging 44.4 points per game to 27.8 last year.
Myles Garrett and Deashon Hall will be monsters getting to the quarterback this year so I'm hoping that the Bruins have a solid gameplan to account for them. The secondary also looks to be solid coming back, which could be really tough on Josh Rosen.
The Bruins have only four starters coming back on offense but experts say that with Josh Rosen at quarterback that won't be a huge issue. The other starters include two offensive linemen, one of whom is a tackle. They'll need to keep the pass rush at bay for a substantial portion of the game, otherwise Rosen could have a really hard time getting into the flow. Josh Rosen will also have to play nearly mistake free football and that will be very difficult against the Aggie pass rush and their strong secondary.
For UCLA to win this game they'll have to win the battle on defense. The defense has to replace their nose tackle who was drafted in the first round and linebacker Myles Jack who didn't play most of last season after a season-ending knee injury. I don't look too much into the glorified exhibition game against Nebraska where the defense looked really bad against the run. I think the defense will make just enough stops to win this one for the Bruins.
S: UCLA at Texas A&M (-2.5)
Given that A&M always looks elite in Week 1, before they fade, convinces me that they'll get the win here. I think Josh Rosen will have an issue with the Aggie pass rush and will have some issues. A&M should have some decent QB play with Trevor Knight at the helm, and lord knows they've recruited well enough to be competitive with anyone in the country.
I hope I'm wrong and that UCLA gets the W. But something about UCLA in College Station makes me nervous.
R: LSU (-9) v. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field
The Badgers have six starters back on both sides of the ball. Luckily, four of the starters coming back are offensive linemen who will be protecting a new starter at quarterback. With Corey Clement coming back the rushing attack will be improved but they go up against a really good Tiger defense.
LSU's new defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, is coming straight from Wisconsin. The defense also has nine starters back and only have to replace an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker. But the Tigers recruit so well I doubt that will be a big issue.
The Tiger offense has eight starters coming back including one of the best running backs in college football, Leonard Fournette. A one-dimensional offense has stymied their rushing attack against top competition because teams could load the box. Against Alabama and the Razorbacks, LSU ran for 54 yards and 59 yards, respectively. Brandon Harris is back at quarterback with the top three receiving targets back but seeing improvement at the LSU quarterback position has been like chasing a rainbow.
Wisconsin's secondary is replacing three starters so the LSU offense might find some matchups to exploit. If LSU can pass the ball well then this will be a blowout. I like the Bayou Bengals to start off the year strong and grind out at least a 10-point win even with an average passing attack.
S: LSU v. Wisconsin (+9) at Lambeau Field
Lot of offseason crowning of LSU as the next big thing. To me, they have been perpetually overvalued while Wisconsin has been a little undervalued since Russell Wilson's departure. I may regret taking the underdog here, but I have a feeling that Wisconsin can keep this tight in front of an ostensibly home crowd. I have very little faith in LSU to all of a sudden show up with good quarterback play, and I think that Wisconsin will be more physical defensively than a lot of people expect. Take the points. And hope that the Badgers have the fortitude to fight it out in the trenches for 4 quarters.
R: North Carolina (+3) v Georgia in Atlanta
Kirby Smart finally takes the reigns of a top collegiate program. The long-time architect of some of the best defenses has left Saban to start his journey on being bluer than indigo. It will be interesting to see how well Smart is able to do without Saban. Was the defense a team effort? Was it mostly Smart? Was it mostly Saban?
The Bulldogs have eight starters back on offense and six on defense. Smart will get to pick between a very experienced quarterback with a high floor and low ceiling, or go with a younger QB with a low flow but very high ceiling. Nick Chubb is back and hopefully we won't be robbed off watching him play because of another injury. The offense probably has maturing to do.
The entire Georgia defensive secondary is back, which means that Georgia has some work to do in the front seven. UGA recruits extremely well so I don't think they'll be struggling with talent but the youth this early in the year will be problematic.
North Carolina has a new quarterback but has four starters on the line coming back. The rushing game was the strength on offense for the Tar Heels last year behind maybe the best line in the conference and it will be imperative that the line starts strong. Gene Chizik did a huge turnaround with the defense and with seven starters coming back this group is only going to get better.
I don't see how Georgia can keep pace with the North Carolina offense. Chizik is going to lead a great defensive effort and the Tar Heels will leave with a win.
S: North Carolina at Georgia (-3)
Was tempted to take North Carolina here, but I recall well how poorly the Tar Heels played in the opener last year, with an experienced QB under center. Now they go on the road to play a Georgia squad that, despite lack of QB experience as well, has a bruising running game, crazy defensive talent, and a defensive wunderkind in new head coach Kirby Smart. UNC probably got a little worse in the offseason and Georgia a little better. I'll lay 3 and look for Georgia to win by a touchdown.
R: Oklahoma at Houston (+9)
Oklahoma had a great season making it to the college football playoff semi-final before running into Clemson who pushed Alabama to the brink. But I don't think the end of the year schedule is an accurate assessment of the Sooners last year.
When the Red River Shootout was over the college football world laughed and laughed and laughed because Texas had beat Oklahoma 24-17. While Oklahoma did beat Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma state back-to-back-to-back, it should also be noted that all those teams were playing with their backup quarterback.
The biggest loss on offense is Sterling Shepard who was drafted by the New York Football Giants. Shepard was the go-to guy and nearly doubled the reception total of the receiver below him and had over 500 more yards. This offense won't be as dynamic without him. Besides, Oklahoma has never handled pre-season hype well and have never finished in the top-10 when they were voted into the pre-season top-10.
Houston is one of the hottest programs in college football with six offensive starters back and five defensive starters back. Quarterback Greg Ward is back. Ward ran for 1301 yards and threw for another 2828 as a junior and gets five of his top six receivers back. The Cougar front seven comes back loaded with five starters returning.
What really tips the scales in my mind towards thinking Houston covers is that I don't think Oklahoma is as good last year as their record would lead one to believe. Second, I think losing Shepard is huge and the Sooners historically struggle with pressure. Also, this is basically Houston's Super Bowl. If Houston doesn't win this game they aren't making the playoffs.
S: Oklahoma at Houston (+9)
This may be purely contrarian, but I hope Houston gives Oklahoma a lot of fits. There are few blemishes for OU, but if you had to nitpick you'd point to the loss of Sterling Shepard and some significant defensive starters gone. OU is very good, but Houston is riding as high as anyone, and should be pretty loose for this game, especially in front of their home crowd. Take the points, and look for a shootout/thriller.
R: USC v. Alabama (-10) at Dallas Cowboys Stadium
Alabama eats first-year starters alive. Even though USC is returning every person on offense except the quarterback there is still a lot of danger with the Alabama defense. The Tide defense lost six starters but will replace them with six more players who will play just as well or better and get drafted by the NFL. The Nick Saban death machine rolls on.
On offense, Alabama has star receiver Calvin Ridley back and they also return three offensive linemen. Alabama is built on running the football, as seen with Derrick Henry carrying the ball over 400 times last season, so they have been able to get away with using first year quarterbacks. However, a winner has not been picked in the competition between freshman Blake Barnett, who is more dynamic, or Cooper Bateman, who is much older and is most likely being depended on because of consistency and a level of veteran maturity. Basically, Saban likes old guys who don't make freshman mistakes.
On defense the Trojans only return five players, only one of whom plays in the front seven. The Tide offense is going to run through them and take the air out of the ball. Alabama will go full boa-constrictor and suck the life out of this game and cover.
S: USC v. Alabama (-10) at Dallas Cowboys Stadium
Don't really know who Alabama is putting in there at QB, don't really have to know. They have subbed in so many dudes who just make it work, especially with Lane Kiffin calling plays. USC is on the verge of a comeback, but it won't be evident here. They're too far behind the defending champs to keep it within 10. I think this will be like a 17-10 halftime score, and then Alabama will run the ball down USC's throat. Bama big.
R: BYU at Arizona (-2.5)
Taysom Hill returns for the BYU Cougars after being granted a sixth-year of eligibility. He entered college the same year that Bryce Brown was the top recruit and Matt Barkley was headed to USC. Reuben Randle was in the same recruiting class and he was just released by the Eagles after four years in the NFL. BYU has four starting offensive linemen back to protect Hill who has had his last several seasons ended early because of a serious injury.
The Cougar defense has eight starters coming back including three on the defensive line, two linebackers, and three defensive backs. All units come back significantly more experienced. However, they are switching to a 4-3 from a 3-4 under new head coach Kalani Sitake who is making some serious changes on both sides of the ball.
The Wildcats return eight starters on defense with five of the front six back and three in the secondary. The defense struggled last year but now have Marcel Yates, formerly of Boise State, leading the defense.
Rich Rodriguez is now in his fifth year at Arizona and I don't think the results so far are what Wildcat fans were hoping for when they hired the former Michigan coach who turned West Virginia into a national power. This year they get seven players back on offense including Anu Solomon at QB. The offense was very balanced last year and with Solomon and Wilson at full speed to start off the year they have a great shot winning at home, especially with three starting linemen back.
S: BYU (+2.5) at Arizona
Arizona is notorious at taking time to gel early in the year. They won't have a ton of time to figure that out facing a BYU that is fresh and ready to attack a super-duper hard schedule. Who knows about Taysom Hill's health for the entirety of the year, but he's starting this game for the Cougars, and that spells trouble for Arizona. I still think Arizona is a bowl team, but they should watch out for this BYU squad.
R: Notre Dame (-3) at Texas
This line is scary easy. It seems too easy. Vegas is daring us to bet on Notre Dame. Notre Dame only has four starters back on offense and are in the unenviable situation of a quarterback battle, except their situation is between two guys who could truly be stars. The two linemen on the left side return. This team has a lot of talent, has depth, but is young.
Texas is the more interesting team of the two. The Longhorns have seven starters back on offense and eight back on defense. Freshman Shane Buechele is already getting comparisons to former Texas QB Colt McCoy. The other guy who could possibly play is Tyrone Swoopes who has gone 6-8 as a starter with some really bad games mixed in.
Charlie Strong has always favored an offense that is run-heavy and a defense that can stifle opponents. It worked really well when he was at Florida and Louisville. He's got a lot to work with at the running back position with Chris Warren III weighing in at 250 and backup D'Onta Freeman coming in at 238. Three linemen are back and can help open some gaps. On defense they have a ton of experience coming back that learned a lot last year.
Texas will be one of the most improved teams this year but Notre Dame is ready to go right now. With the talent and history of playing at a high level under Brian Kelly where Texas is still being waited on, slowly but surely.
S: Notre Dame (-3) at Texas
Given the recent dramatics off the field at Notre Dame, I'd be tempted to take Texas if this number were higher. But really the Irish's biggest position group harmed by the recent arrests was the secondary. I think Shane Buechele (or whoever starts for the Longhorns) will have a tough time taking advantage of inexperience at safety. Notre Dame will be just fine on offense and I think Texas will have a tough time stopping the Irish attack. Defensively, UND is kind of a mystery, but I don't think Texas will be able to do too much damage offensively. Lay the 3.
R: Ole Miss (+6) v Florida State in Orlando
The Rebels return star quarterback Chad Kelly and have two linemen back on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Laquon Treadwell and Nkemdiche have left for the NFL but are being replaced by solid players, but obviously losing stars will hurt any team. Both cornerbacks return and I think the Land Shark defense wil continue to be in full force.
Florida State has an unknown value at quarterback but have Dalvin Cook coming back. Cook and Freeman are the two best running backs in college football that don't get the attention they deserve. I personally think that Cook is one of the few players that can transcend what the offensive line offers. He got very little help last year. The entire offensive line and receiving group, featuring Travis Rudolph. The Seminole defense has six starters coming back with three on the defensive line, one linebacker, and two members in the secondary.
I'll take the points because nobody has any idea what the result of this game will be. Ole Miss is a great team that is one of the best in the country and their stellar D will take on a great offense but with a question mark at the quarterback position. When there isn't a clear winner I like getting six points at a neutral site.
S: Ole Miss v Florida State (-6) in Atlanta
I think you take this one to the bank. FSU is lying in the weeds here, and quietly has one of the more talented rosters in football. Even though Sean Maguire is out at QB for a while, I think Deondre Francois (or whoever FSU puts in there) should be able to at least put together a balanced attack. Dalvin Cook is a Heisman frontrunner and Ole Miss has to replace everyone in the front seven on defense. Lay the points here. Look for a 14+ point win for FSU, 'cause we're once again #TalkinBoutTheNoles.