Finally, there is FOOTBALL tonight! Let my game predictions begin.
(9)South Carolina @ Vanderbilt, 7:00pm, ESPN (Thursday)
The Gamecocks begin their quest to finally break into the national championship picture tonight against Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for them, this is 2012, not 2010. Vandy isn't a doormat anymore and James Franklin wants to push his Commodores to the next level. A win tonight would certainly accomplish that. Unfortunately for them, South Carolina employs Marcus Lattimore, who, with or without help from QB Connor Shaw and the passing game, will guide the Gamecocks to victory—but not before we get a taste of what's to come from Jordan Rodgers & Co. in the future.
Projection: South Carolina 24, Vanderbilt 17
Tennessee vs. North Carolina State (Game played in Atlanta, GA), 7:30pm, ESPNU (Friday)
The loss of Da'Rick Rogers ended an already uneasy offseason with a bang. Now, Tyler Bray has only one proven target to go to, and the thermometer on Derek Dooley's seat is slowly creeping up. Meanwhile, with ball hawking safety David Amerson patrolling NC State's defensive backfield, Bray needs to be careful. Amerson led the FBS with picks and would like to do so again. However, Bray is an experienced QB who will pull the Vols through in the clutch.
Projection: Tennessee 31, North Carolina State 20
Buffalo @ (6)Georgia, 12:00pm, SEC Network
The Bull Bowl (Bulls vs. Bulldogs) is nothing more than the most recent example of shameful schedule padding. Don't worry, my Gators do it plenty too. This is a Buffalo team that has never quite recovered from the loss of record setting QB Drew Willy a couple of years ago against a Georgia team that won the SEC East last year and returns enough of their defense, even with the heavy suspensions, to make another run at Atlanta. The Bulldogs' weakness at running back will be exposed later in the year, but for now, Aaron Murray can play on cruise control. Georgia wins with ease.
Projection: Georgia 49, Buffalo 20
Bowling Green @ (23)Florida, 3:30pm, ESPN
Don't laugh, Gator fans. The Falcons are not only a FBS team with bowl appearances and wins, but also a legitimate threat to upset you if you mess around. Bowling Green returns 3,000 yard passer Matt Schilz and leading rusher Anthon Samuel. On the flip side, Florida returns 10 of 11 starters from a defense that finished 8th in the nation in yards per game allowed. Advantage Florida. In addition, Bowling Green's defense was terrible last year, and promises to be little better this year. It's just too much for the Falcons to overcome.
Projection: Florida 55, Bowling Green 24
Auburn vs. (14) Clemson (Game played in Atlanta, GA), 7:00pm, ESPN
It's time for round three of the Tiger Bowl. The two teams split in each of the past two seasons, each holding serve on their home field, so now it's time to take this game to a neutral site to determine the winner. Star receiver Sammy Watkins has been suspended for this game, which is a major blow to Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense. Andre Ellington will likely see his role greatly increase against a porous Auburn defense. On the other side of the ball, Kiehl Frazier will start as Auburn's QB, but he'll do so without electrifying RB Mike Dyer, who is now at Prairie View A&M. Bottom line: Auburn misses more from last year than Clemson.
Projection: Clemson 45, Auburn 31
Jacksonville State @ (10)Arkansas, 7:00pm, ESPN3
In the wake of Bobby Petrino's departure, many people have forgotten that this still a solid team. True, the Hogs do lose their three best receivers from a year ago, but they have something just as good: the best running back in the SEC. Knile Davis makes his long anticipated return to Fayetteville, and should have a field day against the Gamecocks. One note of concern for Arkansas: former Georgia running back Washaun Ealey could prove to be a problem. But JSU doesn't have enough weapons to seriously contend here.
Projection: Arkansas 52, Jacksonville State 10
North Texas @ (3)LSU, 7:00pm, ESPNU
No Tyrann Mathieu, no problem for LSU, at least not in their opener. The simple reason that UNT has no shot here is that they are a non-SEC team invading SEC turf. Of course, the task for the Mean Green isn't made any easier by the fact that QB Derek Thompson didn't even pass for 2,000 yards in the Sun Belt last year. Meanwhile, LSU's defense has gotten weaker with heavy personnel losses, but the good news is, the offense has gotten stronger with most of the starters returning. Zach Mettenberger has a day to remember in his LSU debut.
Projection: LSU 48, North Texas 7
Southeastern Louisiana @ Missouri, 7:00pm, ESPN3
The newest set of Tigers in the SEC won't get challenged much in their season opener. Incumbent QB James Franklin (not to get confused with the Vanderbilt coach) should have a field day against a FCS team that doesn't even rate a page on ESPN.com for its football team. The other thing to watch for in this game is to see how top receiver recruit Dorial Green-Beckham does in his debut. Missouri shouldn't have much trouble.
Projection: Missouri 34, Southeastern Louisiana 13
Central Arkansas @ Mississippi, 7:00pm, ESPN3
The goal for first year Rebel coach Hugh Freeze has to be to simply make a bowl game. A win here would be a great start. Freeze is best known for his role in Michael Oher's life as his high school coach. But as he may find out within a month, college ball is a whole different animal. No worries here though. If utilized correctly, Donte Moncrief could become an instant game changer catching passes from Randall Mackey, and that's what I believe will happen many times in the Rebels' opener. Ole Miss gets it done.
Projection: Mississippi 28, Central Arkansas 10
Jackson State @ Mississippi State, 7:00pm, ESPN3
Another cupcake game to try to make heads or tails of. Flip a coin. Heads, and QB Tyler Russell makes mincemeat of the Tigers' secondary with Chad Bumphis. Tails, and LaDarius Perkins burns them on the ground. Either will work like a charm. Dan Mullen has created a quiet, nasty sleeping bear that could do some real damage in the SEC West if the defense continues to improve. The Maroon Dogs won't be tested in this game, though. Let's wait until week two when they play Auburn to determine if they're for real.
Projection: Mississippi State 35, Jackson State 3
(8)Michigan vs. (2)Alabama (Game played in Arlington, TX), 8:00pm, ABC
The topic of Michigan tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint and his "suspension" still looms as an undecided piece of fate. I personally believe his suspension will be lifted Saturday morning, and Brady Hoke will have taught him nothing and sent no message at all. I also believe that karma will get him back in the form of a slightly weakened but nonetheless ferocious Crimson Tide defense. Sure, Denard Robinson will put up some points, but for the most part, he'll be very uncomfortable trying to make plays against a perennially attacking defense. AJ McCarron pulls the Tide through.
Projection: Alabama 30, Michigan 17
Kentucky @ (25)Louisville, 3:30pm, ESPN
Can the Big East finally gain some respect across the nation? Last year, one of their best teams couldn't even beat the second worst team in the SEC. Louisville looks for revenge against the Cats at home, and Teddy Bridgewater looks to get off on the right foot in his second season at Louisville. Meanwhile, Kentucky is hoping to finally get some offensive production out of QB Morgan Newton. I'll go out on a limb and pick the upset—the Wildcats steal this one from under the Cardinals' noses.
Projection: Kentucky 17, Louisville 14