It was great to have the ACC and Big 12 begin play earlier this month. It was nice to see Army and Louisiana-Lafayette crash the Top 25.
But now the season can truly get started. College football without the SEC was like Peter Luger’s without a porterhouse.
When you are in Tuscaloosa, Ala., you are more than 200 miles from the closest professional team. In Oxford, Miss., you’re about 250 miles away. Even in less-isolated towns, college sports’ roots run decades deeper, helping fuel the amount of passion which fans in pro towns split among as many as five teams.
Oxygen just isn’t as important as third-and-7 in the Deep South.
“There were little old ladies with their grandchildren flipping off our bus,” new Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said Wednesday of his first-ever game at LSU. “You get closer and they start rocking our bus.”
Last year, LSU rewarded its faithful with one of the most dominant seasons of all time, the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner since 1959, its first win over Alabama in eight years, its first national championship in 12 years and a title-night party on Bourbon Street.
But Joe Burrow is gone, one of five LSU players taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The country’s top wide receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, opted out, one of 19 starters who isn’t back. Passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who changed the program, joined the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is at Baylor.
Mississippi State (+16.5) is resetting, under Leach, whose pass-happy scheme should excel with experienced Stanford transfer K.J. Costello.
What Myles Brennan will do is a greater mystery. The new LSU quarterback has thrown 70 career passes. Perhaps he will shine with the support of another talented Tigers roster, but a recent generation of LSU quarterbacks couldn’t thrive in similar circumstances. Even Burrow looked as if he’d go undrafted before Brady’s arrival.
Then, the Tigers produced the type of season that may never come to the school again. It certainly won’t be this season.
Kansas State (+27.5) over OKLAHOMA
Knowing Sooners coach Lincoln Riley, Spencer Rattler will probably become a Heisman finalist, but he’ll have to face at least this one FBS team — a conference foe with Top-25 talent, which stunned Oklahoma last season and is likely refocused after an upset loss to Arkansas State — before he receives the Baker Mayfield/Kyler Murray/Jalen Hurts treatment.
Florida (-14) over MISSISSIPPI
New Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin makes the SEC even more interesting, but the Rebels haven’t had a winning season since 2015 and may have the worst defense in the league.
Kentucky (+7.5) over AUBURN
Mark Stoops has authored four straight winning seasons at Kentucky and brings back a balanced roster — including dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson, an elite offensive line and a secondary that ranked second in the nation in passing yards allowed last season. Bo Nix’s breakout will have to wait.
EAST CAROLINA (+27.5) over Central Florida
It won’t be close. The Knights could be the best Group of 5 team in the nation again. But fading the public is still a safer play.
PITTSBURGH (-2.5) over Louisville
Former Lamar Jackson understudy Micale Cunningham could end up similarly let down by the Cardinals defense on a weekly basis. Cunningham will find it harder to bail out his teammates against the relentless pressure of the Panthers defensive front.
TEXAS TECH (+18) over Texas
Last season, the Red Raiders ranked 127th in the nation in total defense. In their first game this season — when they were favored by 41 points — they allowed 572 passing yards to Houston Baptist in a 35-33 win. So, why am I picking them? The same reason the scorpion stung the frog. It’s in my nature (to be a contrarian).
Army (+13.5) over CINCINNATI
Blowout wins over Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe don’t scream of significance, but the Black Knights will be ready for their biggest game of the season, just as they were in a double-overtime loss at Michigan last season and in an overtime loss at Oklahoma in 2018.
OKLAHOMA STATE (-6.5) over West Virginia
If Spencer Sanders is under center for Oklahoma State, this will be great value. If not, the Cowboys still should enjoy being on the right side of the talent gap, with Chuba Hubbard due to look like last year’s leading rusher after putting up just 93 yards on 27 carries in a surprisingly tight win over Tulsa.
ARKANSAS (+26.5) over Georgia
The Hogs haven’t won an SEC game in nearly three years, but they should be able to limit the damage against an offense that had presumed starting quarterback Jamie Newman opt out and still hasn’t had USC transfer J.T. Daniels cleared for practice. Even with Jake Fromm, Georgia’s offense wasn’t setting the SEC ablaze, averaging 25.3 points in conference games last season.
MISSOURI (+27) over Alabama
Another scorpion special. Here’s hoping the plan of new 37-year-old Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz — coming off a 13-1 record at Appalachian State in his first season in charge — to hide his starting quarterback’s identity makes as much of a difference as he thinks it will.
TEXAS A&M (-30.5) over Vanderbilt
Jimbo Fisher’s squad specializes in beating every team except the ones that matter. Fun facts: Vanderbilt has been in the SEC since 1933 and is the only team to never have won a division title. In their 118-year history, the Commodores have never won double-digit games.
Florida State (+11.5) over MIAMI
This once-special rivalry still has enough local juice to keep lopsided matchups close. Five of the past six meetings have been decided by five points or fewer.
Tennessee (-3.5) over SOUTH CAROLINA
I have a hard time believing the answer to the Gamecocks’ offensive issues is a grad transfer (Collin Hill, from Colorado State) who has a 3-10 record as a starting quarterback and is coming off his third ACL tear. The Volunteers ended last season on a six-game winning streak, which started with a 20-point win over South Carolina.
Best bets: Florida, Mississippi State, Army
This season (Best bets): 18-9 (2-4)
2014-19 record: 772-756-13