The consensus seems to be that Georgia needs to win this game more than Clemson. That’s true as far as their respective paths to the College Football Playoff. Still, if Clemson loses this game, I’ll spend all season wondering if they can best an elite opponent if they make it to the CFP.
Since beating Alabama for the 2019 title, Clemson has lost two of three games against non-conference opponents ranked in the top five (Notre Dame was a full ACC member in 2020 instead of quasi). The one victory was 29-23 vs. Ohio State in the 2019 CFP semifinal. The two losses, to LSU and Ohio State, were by a total margin of 91-53. Clemson has slipped relative to its high standard.
The Tigers beefed up their defensive line after the Buckeyes pushed them around in last season’s CFP semifinal. That would be a worry if the Bulldogs still were playing Kirby Smart’s “man ball” brand of grinding football. Smart since has accepted that he must pass to win big, and quarterback JT Daniels is the guy to do it. The Bulldogs win straight up.
Northern Illinois (+18) at Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins can’t do anything about the annual games against Clemson and Georgia on the schedule even if he wanted to. He should take every chance he can to give his program a break with the rest of the schedule. Enter Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference.
The Huskies have lost their past six games against Power 5 opponents by an average margin of 20 points. Northern Illinois won at Nebraska in 2017, back when it was a solid program with coach Rod Carey (he succeeded Collins at Temple). The Huskies are 5-13 under Thomas Hammock, including 0-6 in 2020 against an all-MAC schedule.
According to the Odds Shark database, the Jackets haven’t been such a big favorite against an FBS opponent since giving 28 points to Bowling Green of the MAC in 2018. They won that game 63-17. Paul Johnson retired weeks later. This is the year the Jackets begin their climb back to winning football. They prove it from the start by covering the spread against the Huskies.
Army (+2) at Georgia State
Georgia State football has come a long way since starting from scratch in 2010. The Panthers were playing at the FBS level by 2013 and, predictably, lost a lot of games for a couple of years. They had their first winning season in 2017 with first-year coach Shawn Elliott, who’s guided them to bowl bids in three of four years.
GSU has a chance to be good again. Nearly ever starter returns from last season’s 6-4 team. The Panthers should be great on offense and better on defense. Army’s triple-option offense makes this a tricky opener, but I say the Panthers score a bunch of points and cover.
Other games of interest
No. 1 Alabama (-19½) vs. No. 14 Miami (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
The Crimson Tide had eight players selected within the first 38 picks of the last NFL draft. Their best skill players went sixth, 10th, 15th and 24th. Bama is still Bama, but that’s an extraordinary amount of talent out the door. My underdog bias means it’s hard for me to turn down a good team getting so many points, but that line looks inflated. ‘Canes cover.
Florida Atlantic (+23½) at No. 13 Florida
Florida coach Dan Mullen finally is getting the super-spreader event he’s long coveted. The Swamp will have no attendance restrictions for this game even as COVID-19 surges in the state. There also will be no mask or vaccination requirements because Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the worst. Mullen, a very good offensive coach, will need time to get the Gators humming after their best players departed. Give me Florida Atlantic and the points.
No. 16 LSU (-3) at UCLA
Remember when UCLA coach Chip Kelly was the hot commodity? The Eagles hired Kelly after he revived Oregon’s program and fired him after three seasons with no playoffs. The 49ers hired Kelly and ate $30 million to get rid of him after one season. Kelly landed at UCLA, where he’s 11-21 in three seasons. The Bruins blew out Hawaii last week, and Hurricane Ida forced LSU to leave Baton Rouge and practice in Houston. I still trust LSU’s Ed Orgeron more than Kelly. Tigers cover.
No. 9 Notre Dame (-7½) at Florida State
Ex-Central Florida star McKenzie Milton was supposed to be the answer to Florida State’s issues at quarterback. He’s listed on the depth chart as a co-starter alongside Jordan Travis. Maybe FSU coach Mike Norvell is just trying to be secretive, but it makes me nervous that Milton apparently hasn’t seized the starter’s role. I’ll take Notre Dame and give the points.
No. 10 North Carolina (-5½) at Virginia Tech
The Falcons passed on a chance to draft Matt Ryan’s successor in the last draft. They can do it in the next one after another bad season. I like North Carolina’s Sam Howell, the preseason ACC player of the year. He’s thrown for 68 touchdowns against 14 interceptions over two seasons. Howell lit up the Hokies last season, and I see him doing it again despite the Tar Heels breaking in some new skill players. UNC covers.
Louisville (+10) vs. Ole Miss (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
Ole Miss will score points. Star wide receiver Elijah Moore is in the NFL, but coach Lane Kiffin and quarterback Matt Corral remain. The question is whether the defense is better. It doesn’t need to be great to slow the Cardinals. They still have QB Malik Cunningham, but are replacing their top skill players. I like Ole Miss to cover.
Last season against the spread: 92-78-3