My analytical brain rejects the idea of “clutch” performance in sports because nearly every attempt to prove it using statistics comes up short. Now I realize that’s just because the math nerds never studied Weekend Predictions. I stared down the possibility of my first losing season in four of picking games and came up clutch.
I had an 83-81-1 record against the spread going into the final week of last season. I secured another winning year by going 5-1 on picks in the final week, including two straight-up victories by underdogs. The 88-82-1 mark is my worst in four years, but my overall mark is 446-367-17 (.549). That’s a very good winning percentage. Beating the sportsbooks requires getting about 52% of picks right. Few people can do that on a lot of games in the long term.
Yet my confidence is not soaring. A new season just means a fresh slate of doubts and insecurities about my picks. Annoyingly, my analytical brain doesn’t allow me to enjoy success picking games because it keeps whispering about the coming regression. After proving I’m clutch, I expect to choke.
No. 11 Oregon (+17) vs. No. 3 Georgia (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
Georgia coach Kirby Smart finally beat his old boss. Now can he own his former assistants in the same way as Nick Saban? Alabama’s coach was 24-0 against his ex-staffers until losing to Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher last fall. Saban beat Smart in the SEC Championship game but lost the rematch in the national title game. Smart beat Arkansas, coached by ex-assistant Sam Pittman, in October. This year he’ll face two of his former aides, Dan Lanning (Oregon) and Shane Beamer (South Carolina).
Lanning inherited a good team from Mario Cristobal, who’s now at Miami. Underachieving defense has been an issue for Oregon, but defense is Lanning’s specialty. Auburn transfer Bo Nix is his quarterback. Those are good enough reasons to take Oregon and the points. Besides, picking favorites is boring, and that attitude has never, ever hurt me.
No. 4 Clemson (-22) at Georgia Tech (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
Last season Clemson lost three games for the first time since 2014. That’s also the last time the Tigers didn’t win the ACC. Both of Dabo Swinney’s coordinators left for head-coach gigs: Tony Elliott (Virginia) and Brent Venables (Oklahoma). Clemson still begins the season with a Top 5 ranking and is heavily favored to win the ACC. Swinney can’t pretend the world is against Clemson, though I’m sure he’ll still try.
Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins is 1-4 in his career in season-opening games as a head coach. In fairness, those games included at Notre Dame, at Clemson and at Florida State. Collins beat FSU, but also lost openers to Villanova and Northern Illinois. The two losses at Notre Dame and Clemson were by a total margin of 101-30. That history and the talent disparity are why I’m taking Clemson and giving the points.
Georgia State (+12½) at South Carolina
Shane Beamer’s dad, Frank, coached Virginia Tech for 29 years. That job was available in November, but young Beamer said he’s not interested. Will Muschamp is a much easier act to follow. The Gamecocks were 6-16 in the two seasons before Beamer arrived. They finished 7-6 last season, with victories over Florida, Auburn and North Carolina. Now they have quarterback Spencer Rattler, the ex-Oklahoma star.
Georgia State started last season 1-4 before recovering to finish 8-5. That was a school record for wins. The Panthers are going to be good again. They’ll compete with South Carolina at the line of scrimmage and cover the spread.
Other games of interest
Utah State (+41½) at No. 1 Alabama
Alabama opened the season with neutral-site games against Power Five opponents from 2012 until 2020, when COVID-19 messed up the schedule. Now the Crimson Tide resume their tradition of Saban calling overmatched visitors a “good opponent” before Bama blows them out. Saban is just 7-15 ATS at Bama when favored by 40 points or more, according to the Odds Shark database. That’s all the justification I need to pick Utah State to cover.
No. 5 Notre Dame (+17) at No. 2 Ohio State
The Buckeyes should have regressed when Urban Meyer retired after the 2018 season. Instead, they kept winning big with Ryan Day while Meyer, winner of two national titles, embarrassed himself as an NFL coach. Ohio State made the College Football Playoff in Day’s first full season as coach and again in 2020. They were 11-2 last season with a Rose Bowl victory, but losing the Big Ten title game to Michigan means it wasn’t good enough. They’ll start off the season by covering the spread against the Fighting Irish.
No. 7 Utah (-3) at Florida
Gators coach Billy Napier’s overstuffed support staff includes positions with obnoxious titles like “GameChanger Coordinator.” That kind of thing may have been cute at Louisiana-Lafayette, but Napier is setting himself up for some SEC-level mockery if he doesn’t win in Gainesville. I’m always looking for reasons to back a home ‘dog. One reason not to pick the Gators: QB Anthony Richardson is focused on not getting hurt because the available backups have zero college experience. I’m taking Florida and the points, anyway, and counting on Richardson to finish the game and being more careful with the ball.
No. 23 Cincinnati (+6½) at No. 19 Arkansas
I looked up the last Razorbacks coach before Sam Pittman to win as many as nine games in a season. I was delighted to see that it’s Bobby Petrino. That meant I had to search his name to make sure he hadn’t left Missouri State while I wasn’t paying attention (he’s still there) and got to see that neck-brace photo at the top of the results. It never gets old. Arkansas is the pick.
Florida State (+4) vs. LSU (Superdome, New Orleans)
This is an interesting game because there’s uncertainty about which player Brian Kelly will blame if he loses his debut as LSU coach. Double bonus if Kelly uses that terrible fake Cajun accent again. Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec, who played for Kelly at Notre Dame, recently told Boston.com that Kelly lied to his parents and created a culture in which coaches treated players badly. It’s hard to stand out as a dishonest bully among college football coaches, but Kelly’s done it. FSU is the pick.
Last season: 88-82-1