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College Football Picks 2021: Week One

D'Eriq King, Miami

Following an off-season that felt particularly long as we dial back to normal from COVID-19, college football finally returns. There are numerous changes in 2021 after the wacky 2020 season that should have a major impact on the national picture. For one, longer schedules ensure there will be more high priority games than the abbreviated 2020 campaign. Additionally, the free COVID year of eligibility means teams are returning proven, veteran talent more than ever before. However, the most crucial change this fall is the return of full crowds and full stadiums. The atmosphere and pageantry of college football, which are so important to the sport's success are back, meaning that picking the sport will be even more exciting.

(#5) Georgia Bulldogs vs. (#3) Clemson Tigers (Charlotte)

They don't get much bigger in the first official week of the college football season than a matchup between two elite programs with National Title aspirations. Georgia may have their most talented and balanced team since Kirby Smart arrived in Athens over a half-decade ago, while Clemson breaks in a new era, with D.J. Uiagalelei taking over for Trevor Lawrence at quarterback.

This could be a lethal Georgia offense, even with several notable pieces sidelined for this game. Quarterback J.T. Daniels only started the final four games of the 2020 campaign, but was still impressive enough to earn Heisman consideration entering this fall (he's actually my pick).  He's joined in the backfield by a trio of dangerous backs, including feature guy Zamir White. On the outside, the pass-catchers are slightly depleted, with tight ends Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert expected to miss this one, and George Pickens potentially not playing at all in 2021. However, names like Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson and Arian Smith should be more than enough to challenge a Clemson secondary that was shredded by Justin Fields and Ohio State the last time we saw them. With all that being said, my big question for Georgia on offense is their O-Line. It's a talented group led by a potential All-American in Jamaree Salyer, but they're going up against a Clemson pass rush that is deep and talented. How do the Bulldogs handle sixty minutes of constant pressure? Freshmen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy impressed last year and that was without a full off-season to fully integrate themselves in the Clemson nutrition and weight program. It would not shock me if one of those, or both, have a coming out party in primetime.

Clemson's offense is a little bit more mysterious at this point than Georgia, although we are sure that D.J. Uiagalelei will be running the show. "D.J. U" impressed in two starts last fall when Trevor Lawrence had COVID, and he has a huge arm with potentially dangerous running ability. He also benefits from the return of a healthy Justyn Ross, who missed all of 2020 with a serious spine injury. Fully healthy, Ross is one of the best receivers in college football, and he challenges a Bulldog secondary with question marks. Beyond him, there's still some question as to who will be the primary playmakers for the Tigers. That doesn't mean that there is a shortage of options, however. At receiver, Frank Ladson, Joseph Ngata, E.J. Williams and Ajou Ajou could all have a huge game, while tight end Braden Galloway could end up being a John Mackey Award contender. Tailback is the spot I'm more intrigued at personally; Travis Etienne is gone, and there isn't an obvious replacement. Lyn-J Dixon is the veteran in the room, but true freshman Will Shipley has been getting tons of hype over the spring and summer and may be able to come on right away. The more significant concern for Clemson may end up being their offensive line as well, although in a different way. While they should be successful in pass blocking, can they open up enough holes for this rush offense to be successful? Georgia's front seven is as quick and athletic as anybody in the country, and they'd love to force Uiagalelei to throw a bunch in one of his first career starts.

The Bulldogs had serious problems in their secondary before a few late off-season additions. That includes a former Clemson Tiger, corner Derion Kendrick, who would love to show out against his former team. Also arriving was Tykee Smith and Brandon Turnage, although Smith is expected to miss some time to begin the 2021 campaign. Those additions are very crucial not only to Georgia's success on the season, but their potential for a win here. Without reinforcements on the back-end, I shudder to think what Clemson's aerial attack would be able to do against this group.

With two teams as evenly matched as these squaring off at a neutral site location, it's essentially a coin flip scenario. To me, Georgia has slightly less questions at this point in the season, but the fact they have numerous injury problems already makes me slightly wary. They also have to face a Clemson defense that is hungry to get back on the field after hearing about what happened against Ohio State all off-season. I still lean Georgia here; Daniels' edge in experience makes me feel slightly more comfortable about this UGA offense and the Bulldog defense may be the best in the nation. Even though both of these offenses are extremely talented, don't be surprised if defense ends up ruling the day. Both of these groups are so insanely athletic and experienced, and they're coached by two of the best defensive coordinators in the game today.

The Pick: Georgia, 34 Clemson, 28

(#1) Alabama Crimson Tide vs. (#14) Miami Hurricanes (Atlanta)

The other massive neutral site game in Week One features the defending National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide against a Miami Hurricanes program eager to prove they can play with the big boys. The Tide are reloading across their offense, while also breaking in a new OC in former Houston Texans head man Bill O'Brien. Yet, they are still nearly a three-touchdown favorite against the Hurricanes, who went 8-3 in 2020. An important thing to note right off the bat: Miami QB D'Eriq King is expected to be full go for the opener after tearing his ACL in the bowl game. Past running quarterbacks have given Alabama fits at times, and King is hoping to build a dark horse Heisman campaign.

The Alabama offense will look completely different than the one that put up history-defining stats in their National Title run. Bryce Young is going to be handed the reigns of the offense and while the youngster lacks much proven experience, he's got all the talent in the world. He's handing it off to a backfield that could use a committee approach this fall, with Brian Robinson Jr., Jase McClellan and Trey Sanders all getting looks. He's then throwing it to a nearly completely new group of receivers, with the lone exceptions being John Metchie III and Jahleel Billingsley (who's apparently in Nick Saban's doghouse). That's a lot of fresh faces, but you still get the feeling the Tide are going to be able to move the ball. Young can possibly open up this offense more than his predecessor, Mac Jones, and there's little question of how talented Alabama is. Plus, the offensive line should still have an edge against Miami's defensive front, setting the tone early. 

Kings' health was a major factor in the off-season for the Hurricanes. The dynamic signal-caller is one of the best in the country when he's full-go, but you wonder if play-caller Rhett Lashlee may take him slow in this game. Miami doesn't quite have the abundance of superstars on the outside that Alabama can potentially throw at you, but they're not devoid of weapons either. Backs Cam'Ron Harris and Don Chaney offer an impressive lightning-and-thunder combination, while the receiver corps got a major addition over the off-season in the form of Oklahoma transplant Charleston Rambo. I'm still wondering if it's enough to put up points against what could be the best Alabama defense we've seen in years. They're playing an elite Alabama linebacker corps that got even better over the off-season, which includes three potential All-Americans (Christian Harris, Will Anderson, Henry To'o To'o). The Tide secondary isn't quite as star-studded as past editions, but Malachi Moore and veterans Josh Jobe and Daniel Wright still put them in a good spot. I'm curious to see if Lashlee and this offense try some fresh, creative things to manufacture yardage. King gives them a fighting chance, but they absolutely need others at the skill positions to have the game of their lives. It's certainly not impossible, but it becomes a lot tougher when the offense hasn't played live football in nine months.

Casual college football fans expecting a flashy display between two of the sport's signature programs will be in for a surprise on Saturday. This could be a game that's fairly sloppy, as both offenses try and hit their stride against good defenses. Alabama is breaking in so many new pieces, and the Hurricane defense is pretty strong themselves. Head coach Manny Diaz is a defensive guy through-and-through, so he has had to be licking his chops at the opportunity to prove himself against Saban and the Tide. However, Miami just doesn't have the horses to win this football game. Covering a fairly hefty spread is certainly within their territory, but I think they're still a year or two away in their current development under Diaz to seriously push the Tide. You know Saban will have his group ready to go, and Alabama has proven themselves time and time again in season openers.

The Pick: Alabama, 28 Miami, 14

(#19) Penn State Nittany Lions @ (#12) Wisconsin Badgers

After both teams went through down 2020 seasons, at least compared to their usual success, Wisconsin and Penn State are ready to turn it around this fall. The Nittany Lions are breaking in a new offensive coordinator to run an offense that suffered through an injury-plagued 2020, while the Badgers are hoping their usual stingy defense puts them in position for an important season-opening win at home.

Mike Yurcich was brought on by James Franklin to run the PSU offense. He'll operate a group that has a veteran QB, Sean Clifford, a deep running back room, and plenty of options at wide out. Clifford in particular is the X-factor here; he's started two seasons for the Nittany Lions, but really struggled in 2020. There's no excuse not for him to have a productive campaign, as Yurcich is viewed as somewhat of a "QB guru" and the 1-2 punch of Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington can overwhelm most college secondaries. Clifford's play will be important all season long, but I am curious to see how the Penn State ground game looks in particular here. They bring back a healthy Noah Cain, but face down against a Wisconsin linebacker corps that may be the best in the country. Does that put even more pressure on Clifford? The addition of Baylor transfer John Lovett may be able to open things a little bit more, as he's proven he can be a valuable receiver out of the backfield.

Wisconsin's defense should once again be among the best in the Big Ten, but the obvious questions are on offense. After dominating Illinois and Michigan to begin the shortened 2020, this offense looked terrible the rest of the way. Quarterback Graham Mertz struggled mightily down the stretch and it didn't help that the Badger receiver corps were extremely depleted. Entering 2021, this group of receivers is expected to be healthy and Wisconsin has one of the country's premier tight ends in Jake Ferguson. Even with healthy options on the perimeter, one would still firmly expect the Badgers to pound the ball. Jalen Berger flashed at the end of last season, but it's Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi who was listed as the top option on the Badger depth chart. Wisconsin should have an edge in the trenches; Penn State's defensive front was hit hard by attrition over the off-season and while the linebacker corps is talented, it's still fairly inexperienced. Expect the usual Badger ground-and-pound, ball control offense, although Mertz may choose to take a few shots in order to shift the momentum of this one.

The Nittany Lions received a lot of hype this preseason as they hope for a resurgent season. It's understandable why, as PSU is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and is overall healthier. With that being said, heading to Madison to begin the year is a tall order. Not only is Camp Randall Stadium one of the craziest environments in the Big Ten, Wisconsin is a very tough team to play to open the season. They play a physical, draining brand of football that should be able to disrupt any rhythm Penn State is able to establish. I like Wisconsin in another game that could be low-scoring. 

The Pick: Wisconsin, 24 Penn State, 20

Other Picks

(#18) Iowa, 28 (#17) Indiana, 20 -- A tough way for Indiana to open the season, as they travel to Iowa City to play a Hawkeyes team that should be able to contain the explosive Hoosier offense.

(#21) Texas, 35 (#23) Louisiana, 31 -- Veteran-laden Ragin' Cajuns give Steve Sarkisian and UT a frustrating debut, but the Longhorns are talented enough to come out on top.

(#4) Ohio State, 45 Minnesota, 21 -- Gophers have enough to give the Buckeyes a game in the first half, but expect Ohio State's talent advantage to really show through in the second.

(#9) Notre Dame, 30 Florida State, 14 -- Tough game for Florida State, as their lack of proven pieces along both the O-Line and D-Line doom them against the physical Fighting Irish.

Upset: UCLA, 34 LSU, 27 -- The Bruins looked terrific in a season-opening demolition of Hawai'i, and the Tigers are full of question marks on both sides of the ball entering 2021.

Superdog (covers > 21 spread): Florida Atlantic (+23.5) @ Florida -- Owls may be able to make it tough in "The Swamp", as Gators break in a brand-new offense.


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