Here are five SEC football-related items we are keeping an eye on this weekend.
1) Showtime for Josh Dobbs
Opportunities come when they are good and ready and frequently when they are least expected. Dobbs, the freshman UT quarterback, gets his shot to start a college game, and how he does may determine who will be the Vols' starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. It's sure hard not to like this kid's confidence, though.
2) Up-tempo up for the challenge
Nick Saban has long been a critic of the high-speed offenses like those used by Auburn, Ole Miss and others. At last summer's SEC meetings, we learned that Brett Bielema also was not a big fan of the up-tempo offenses, questioning whether it was safe for players. Auburn's Gus Malzahn, one of the current architects of the "lots of plays = lots of chances" approach, said he thought the safety criticism was a "joke" and if other coaches were worried about safety, then maybe they shouldn't blitz. Bielema fired back, "I'm not a comedian." No, you certainly are not, and none of the Arkansas faithful are giggling at the recent act that is Arkansas football, considering the Razorbacks have been outscored 104-0 in the last 115 minutes of game action. Arkansas native Malzahn and the 11th-ranked Tigers head to Bielema's place this weekend -- and Bielema's shots have continued, including reporting what he thought was incomplete game video to the SEC office. Whether Bielema's bunch is ready to back up his bold words will be interesting to see.
3) Largest Cocktail Party -- wait, scratch that and just pass the cocktails
The political correctness that forced the name change of the Florida-Georgia game is understandable. It used to be known as the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," and if you ever went to it as a fan, you know why. This game has been every bit the litmus test for who would win the SEC East as Tennessee-Florida over the years. This Saturday, that still applies technically, but considering the injuries that have ravaged these teams, the pregame buzz and trash talk has more of a Debbie Downer-meets-Lou Holtz pessimistic feel. In fact, this may be the first time that other than the diehard fans, you may need a cocktail to enjoy this one.
4) South Carolina surviving
After Connor Shaw bailed the Gamecocks out last week at Missouri, the Fighting Spurriers still have aspirations of winning the SEC East. So do the Georgia Bulldogs. In fact, all of the traditional SEC East powers are pulling for the Tennessee Vols in a monster-mash kind of way this weekend at Missouri. South Carolina needs to handle its BID-ness, though, and that starts with a sneaky 12:21 visit from Mississippi State on Saturday. Interesting indeed.
5) Johnny Football against the Miners
How video-game-tastic can Johnny Manziel's numbers get this week against UTEP? Know this: UTEP is in the bottom 10 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 38.7 points per game. The Miners allowed 59 to Colorado State, for crying out loud. Now enter Johnny Stats Package and his 28 total TDs and his 3,000-plus yards of offense in eight games, and the cosmic tumblers start spinning. Considering this game kicks off at 9 p.m. Eastern, and the competitive nature of this one does not figure to be that gripping, we'll likely catch the score the next day. What would it take to surprise you? Aggies 70-7. Nope, that would not surprise. How about for Johnny Signature? Does 500 yards of total offense and eight TDs sound about right?
(and 1 more)
We have sculpted a list of guidelines as we pick games against the spread.
1) These picks are for entertainment only.
2) A line that looks too good to be true almost always is.
3) While Vegas lines are pretty spot on, remember that the spread is more about spreading the bets than the actual point spread, meaning the number is designed to have equal entertainment wagers on each side.
4) Never back an underdog unless you believe it can win outright. This year we have played exactly one underdog -- Buffalo plus-2 last week at Kent State. That line became Buffalo minus-2 by kickoff. Buffalo won by 20.
4b) The exception here being Nick Saban playing a nonconference, overmatched foe and laying 40-plus points. Alabama clubs weaker SEC foes like baby seals. They tend to treat paycheck opponents with kid gloves.
5) Picking against a certain team can be every bit as effective as picking winning teams.
6) You are picking games to make entertainment, not picking the games you think will be entertaining.
7) There's nothing due but library books and postage. Do not think, "Well, we've missed five in a row, so this one has to hit." Nope, that's why Vegas builds palaces and corner entertainment brokers drive Cadillacs.
With those in mind, let's get to this week's picks:
Oregon State minus-3.5 over USC (tonight) -- In a record-setting year for QBs, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is outperforming them all. Dude is averaging more than 400 passing yards per game and has 30 TDs (with just three picks) in eight games. Offensively challenged USC is stout defensively in the front seven, but there are holes in the secondary. Sean Mannion loves holes.
UCLA minus-27 over Colorado -- The Bruins were rolling, firmly in the top 10 before getting tripped by Stanford and thumped by Oregon. Here's saying the Bruins are running a little on red right now. And as motivated and talented as the Bruins are, comfortably laying four TDs is every bit a statement about the Buffs' troubles. Colorado has allowed at least 44 in each of its four conference games, losing by 24, 27, 41 and 41 to Pac-12 foes. Remember guideline No. 6 above.
Georgia minus-2.5 over Florida -- With Todd Gurley back, the Bulldogs will get a jolt of life on a once-stout, now-injury-riddled offense. Florida, which this week lost starting tackle D.J. Humprhey for up to a month, does not want to hear anyone complain about injuries. In fact, between these two offenses they are up to one starting quarterback, two starting running backs, three starting wide receivers, two starting tackles and a partridge in a pear tree that likely will be watching in street clothes. That means the first team to 17 wins, and with Aaron Murray and Gurley back together like Hall and Oates, Oreos and milk and those windbags on "The View," here's saying the Dawgs are the first one to 17.
Auburn minus-8 at Arkansas -- Gus Malzahn motivated? Yes, please. Auburn runs the ball like a shotgun-based Nebraska -- high speed with a mix of power and deception. Yes, please. Auburn is primarily one-dimensional by choice; Arkansas is one-dimensional by force. Yes, please. (And if this one gets under 7, yes, Yes, YES please.)
Texas Tech minus-2 over Oklahoma State -- Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury is a sunglasses-wearing, stubble-sporting hot shot. Dude has revived the Red Raiders by re-installing a high-flying offense that he triggered when he was a record-setting QB at TTU. Tech suffered its first lost last week at Oklahoma, but the 38-30 setback was a learning experience that will serve the Raiders well this week.
Last week against the spread: 4-1
Season against the spread: 27-17-1