Picking college football games against the spread is a battle we are all destined to lose at some point. Even the sharpest sharps go cold and those stone-cold locks will break the other way when you are relying on the action of 18-22 year-olds exerting themselves physically over a 3-to-4 hour weekend window. Trends, intimate knowledge of the rosters, schemes and latest news can improve your shot at making winning picks, but sometimes you just have to follow your gut with these things.
Sometimes I’m right. I can also be wrong, of course, but I’m going to be here every Wednesday with picks against the spread for the entire SEC slate. Expect some ATS trends to sway my judgment as much as inside information or the old-fashioned hunch.
Tennessee vs. Appalachian State (+20.5): The powerful Volunteers’ offensive attack will take its shots. The key here will be limiting the explosive plays. It’s a wonderful test for the Mountaineers. The experience against Clemson in Death Valley last year should have them ready for this. The Vols have a lot on their mind, including SEC title expectations and a date with Virginia Tech in Bristol in Week 2. I think Tennessee wins comfortably by two touchdowns, but fails to cover the spread. Pick: Mountaineers +20.5
South Carolina at Vanderbilt (-4.5): I’m very frustrated that this spread has moved so much since it opened around -1 or -2 in favor of Vanderbilt. I’m all in on the ‘Dores this year and think Derek Mason’s defense will win them the game, but now that the spread has moved to more than a field goal, we have to consider splitting the pick. While I am encouraging bowl plans for Vanderbilt fans in December, I’m also acutely aware that the offense has a lot to prove outside of Ralph Webb running the ball. That, plus the Coach Boom bump on defense at South Carolina has me thinking this game gets weird and is decided by a field goal. Pick: Gamecocks +4.5
Mississippi State vs. South Alabama (+28): While Dan Mullen is cracking jokes about his quarterback situation, referencing “Nick Williams” — a hybrid of Damian Williams and Nick Fitzgerald — as the starter for week one, the rest of us are left to scratch our heads when making picks in the post-Dak era. A Prescott-led Bulldogs team beat South Alabama by 32 in 2014, so I’ll take the Jags, a potential bowl team, to keep it within four touchdowns. Pick: Jaguars +28
Missouri at West Virginia (-10): I’d take Missouri to cover a first quarter or halftime line for this game, but it’s tough to bet on the Tigers putting up too many points until we see what Josh Heupel has been able to do with quarterback Drew Lock. Pick: Mountaineers -10
Texas A&M vs. UCLA (+2.5): Making the same mistakes over and over is an example of what can happen when the stresses of this complex world force us to retreat into our toddler brain. What results is impulsiveness, poor judgment, self-obsession and picking Texas A&M as a sleeper in the SEC West. UCLA’s Josh Rosen played well on the road as a true freshman, but his dismissal of a Kyle Field advantage suggests that there’s more to be learned playing away from the Rose Bowl.
Also, I don’t know if you remember, but our small sample size of his career suggests Christian Kirk is ready to show out in these big season openers.
Pick: Aggies -2.5
LSU vs. Wisconsin (+10): Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the country last year, allowing less than 14 points, 275 yards per game and just 4.41 yards per play. It’s just the kind of defense you’d want to bet on slowing down Leonard Fournette if not for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda making the move from Madison to Baton Rouge during the offseason. The Badgers will still be solid, but Aranda not only boosts the stock of LSU’s defense, but provides intimate knowledge about their season-opening opposition. Pick: LSU -10
Arkansas vs. Louisiana Tech (+26): Dan Enos’ arrival as offensive coordinator brought historic offensive production to Arkansas. No one in the league scored more points than Arkansas in SEC games (34.4 points per game), thanks in part to the Razorbacks putting 50+ on the scoreboard four times in the final six games of the regular season. This might be one that we’re sweating late, but I like the south side of four touchdowns for one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Pick: Razorbacks -26
Georgia vs. North Carolina (+2.5): Neither school has great memories of their last trip to the Georgia Dome. The Bulldogs got embarrassed by Boise State in 2011 and North Carolina was a dropped touchdown pass away from knocking off LSU in the early days of the still-ongoing NCAA scandal in 2010. Gene Chizik and North Carolina defensive players have discussed the need to improve the run defense and well don’t you know, here comes a finally healthy Nick Chubb, not on a “pitch count” for the game. It’s a prove-it game for North Carolina, which has just two wins (Duke, Pittsburgh) in nine tries against AP Top 25 opponents under Larry Fedora. Pick: Bulldogs -2.5
Kentucky vs. Southern Miss (+6.5): Loyal listeners of the SEC on CBS Podcast know that I’ve been on Southern Miss winning this game since early August. The Golden Eagles are in a good spot — even after the departure of Todd Monken — to continue the resurgence we saw in the 9-win 2015 campaign under Jay Hopson. In a game that I consider to be a “Pick Em,” I’ll take the conference title contending underdogs. Pick: Golden Eagles +6.5
Florida vs. UMass (+36.5): Raise your hand if you feel really uncomfortable picking a favorite to cover a five touchdown spread against an FBS opponent.
Pick: Gators -36.5
Alabama vs. USC (+11.5): The key phrase in this week’s edition of “Picking Bama or Nah?” is “hidden yards.” No one in college football is better on a down-to-down basis than Alabama, but hidden yards — specifically field position advantages thanks to special teams or defensive plays — that don’t show up in the box score could be the difference for USC. Adoree Jackson is the best all-purpose return man in football and picking the Trojans to cover is a bet that he puts on a show Saturday night in JerryWorld. Pick: USC +11.5
Auburn vs. Clemson (-7.5): If Auburn wins maybe another game or two in 2015, or has at least one more of the running backs we were planning to see in 2016, then maybe this line doesn’t look strange. It’s a tough place for anyone to play — Dabo Swinney said “you’re already down” when you get off the bus at Jordan-Hare Stadium — but the defending champs are two touchdowns, not one, better than Auburn, in my opinion. Stay away from this game because the line stinks. Clemson will win, but since I have to pick against the number, I’ll take the hook and hope for something funky. Pick: (Auburn) Tigers +7.5
Ole Miss vs. Florida State (-4.5): Three years ago, another redshirt freshman took the field on Labor Day to close out college football’s opening weekend as Florida State’s new starting quarterback. Deondre Francois won’t be asked to replicate Jameis Winston’s incredible debut against Pitt from 2013 but he will guide the Seminoles to a touchdown victory in a fun, tightly-played game in Orlando. Pick: Seminoles -4.5
Source: CBS Sports / SEC Week 1 Odds, Picks: Vols try to avoid scare, Auburn looks to hang with Clemson