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College Football Picks 2023: Week Three

Michael Penix, Washington
Current Picks Record: 12-6

Upset: 1-1

Superdogs: 1-1

Locks: 2-0

(#11) Tennessee Volunteers @ Florida Gators

Line: Tennessee -6.5

O/U: 59

In a week without very many marquee games to choose from, the rivalry matchup between Tennessee and Florida takes the cake as the most important game on Saturday. Tennessee has looked crisp over their first two games of the year, albeit against meager competition, while Florida is hoping to recover from an underwhelming start and assert themselves as sincere SEC East threats. The main reason for intrigue? Tennessee is looking to win two straight in the series for the first time since 2003-2004, after overcoming the Gators in Knoxville last fall.

Tennessee didn't dominate Austin Peay in Neyland Stadium this past weekend, but the Volunteers still came away with a comfortable victory to cruise to 2-0. It's been a rock-solid start to begin Josh Heuepel's third season at the helm, but it still feels like both sides of the ball is finding their rhythm. That's to be expected so early on in a fresh campaign, and it's reassuring that quarterback Joe Milton has taken care of the ball and looked ready for the big stage early on. The Volunteers are still working on identifying their new top target with Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman now playing on Sundays, with Ramel Keyton looking like the frontrunner, but the ground game has been ferocious and the offensive line looks as good, if not better, than the 2022 edition. My questions tend to lie on defense, a group that looked superb in the opener but was susceptible through the air over the weekend. I don't think it's reason to overreact to a game they still ended up winning against an FCS foe, but this defense is going to have to pick it up once the competition heightens, beginning with Florida this week. This is an aggressive Volunteer defense, but I wonder how things will look when they aren't able to get the big sack or flip the field with a timely turnover. It's not just Georgia they have to worry about in the division, now either. Kentucky, South Carolina, and even Vanderbilt have looked impressive throwing the ball early on, which could be cause for concern for a team with lofty expectations.

With that being said, this Gator offense has a lot to prove before I believe they can toe-to-toe over sixty minutes with the Vols the other way. They recovered from a disastrous showing in the opener by dropping 49 points and 560 yards on McNeese State, but even then, the offense had a feeling of clunkiness. We knew the ground game was likely to rule the day in Gainesville this fall, but tailbacks Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne have been the only consistent sources of offense on the year. The pressure is on Graham Mertz to figure it out and evolve into a difference-maker, or Florida's ceiling is capped as about a .500 football team, at best. Mertz did look good against McNeese State and is going to have opportunities against Tennessee, but the receiver corps has its fair share of questions to contend with also. Beyond Ricky Pearsall, there doesn't appear to be a proven commodity among the position group as we stand today and not a ton of inspiring options, either. It feels like this unit is going to have to be creative to move the ball through the air in 2023, unless something radically changes in the coming weeks.

I wasn't particularly high on Florida entering the season and the lifeless, season-opening defeat to Utah did little to inspire confidence. It's too early in the year to write anybody off, but even on the road, I feel significantly more comfortable taking Tennessee in this one. It feels like we know Tennessee's identity at this point, but the Gators? They're a complete question mark, and even though that things could turn around, I don't like this matchup for them. I'm rolling with the Volunteers comfortably and would highly consider "locking" it up based on where this line is at.

The Pick: Tennessee, 34 Florida, 17

(#8) Washington Huskies @ Michigan State Spartans

Line: Washington -16

O/U: 57.5

Last season, a ranked Michigan State had to travel across the country to the Pacific Northwest to face an upstart Washington program. Now, the Huskies are primed to return the favor, albeit under different circumstances. Washington enters the game as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender with a pair of impressive wins under their belt, while the Spartans are reeling. They may be 2-0, but the suspension of head coach Mel Tucker that occurred earlier in the week has the program at a crossroads as they gear up for a Top 10 foe.

Washington has wreaked havoc on their first two opponents of 2023, posting 56 points on a Boise State team that could win the Mountain West, and then 43 on Kevin Wilson's Tulsa Golden Hurricane. It's been quite the encore from a team that had such a breakthrough debut under head coach Kalen DeBoer last fall, and looks hungry for more. QB Michael Penix has been the figurehead of a terrifying aerial attack that boasts a batch of elite wide outs in Rome Odunze, Ja'Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan, and a Michigan State transfer, Germie Bernard. It's amazing how effortless this passing offense has looked since DeBoer took over, really from the get-go. They attack down the field with reckless abandon and do an excellent job exploiting advantageous matchups at every level. Everybody that loves good offense should be tuning into the Huskies each and every week, it's one of the most exciting shows in college football. And, it's made even more impressive by the fact that this offense doesn't have a semblance of balance to it. Everybody in the stadium knows they are going throw just about every snap and yet, they can't stop it. It's a nightmare scenario for a Spartan defense that has made improvement on the back-end a point of emphasis, but hasn't quite been able to turn things around back there. Defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett is now acting as the team's interim and likely has plenty on his mind right now. Penix and company are just another reason he's probably losing sleep as they gear up for Saturday night in East Lansing.

Michigan State is not going to be chucking the ball all over the field like the Huskies, instead leaning on a more methodical, balanced offense. It's an offense that might not have the star-power of Washington, but has looked productive over their first two weeks of the year against Central Michigan and Richmond. Quarterback Noah Kim has taken over the reigns of the offense from Payton Thorne and has proven to be exceptionally efficient, although the Huskies do offer a stiffer challenge than he's seen as starter so far. On the ground, tailback Nathan Carter has taken over as the feature back and displayed all the trappings of a workhorse. Add in receiver Jaron Mosley on the perimeter, who has been their primary source of big-play opportunities through the first two games, the Spartans have reason to believe they can still move the ball against the Huskies. But, can they really compete with Penix and company over the full four quarters? Your best hope if you're a Spartan fan is that this team slows it down into a rock fight and plays ball-control, doing just enough on offense to come out on top. It certainly isn't a pretty strategy, but it's reminiscent of this program's brand throughout much of the Mark Dantonio years and one they used to great success.

It's been a tumultuous week for Michigan State football and what better way to cap it off then by welcoming a Top 10 team to Spartan Stadium? Not just any Top 10 team, either, but one with an offense bred to blow the doors of a shaky Spartan secondary. This team is going to still put up a valiant fight in front of the home crowd but even if they slow things down, Washington just has too many weapons. If they carry their hot play into Saturday, they shouldn't have too much difficulties moving to 3-0 on the young season.

The Pick: Washington, 42 Michigan State, 21

Minnesota Golden Gophers @ (#20) North Carolina Tar Heels

Line: North Carolina -7.5

O/U: 51

This week may be short on big-time games, but it will give us an opportunity to get formulate stronger on several Power Five teams, including Minnesota and North Carolina. The Gophers snuck out a come-from-behind victory at home against Nebraska, which ultimately looks much less impressive after the 'Huskers got their teeth kicked in by Colorado. On the flip side, the Tar Heels were one of the big winners of Week One after dominating South Carolina, but then went to overtime a week later against Appalachian State. Seeing these two clash, a pair of programs that don't see each other often, will be very helpful in getting a much better idea of what is in store for each in 2023.

It's no secret who the star of the show is for the Tar Heels, as Drake Maye is hoping to deliver an early impression to Heisman voters. He was awfully impressive during the opener against South Carolina, but didn't quite build on it the way you would have hoped against Appalachian State. Fortunately for the Heels, that was mainly due to the emergence of a ground game, spearheaded by Omarion Hampton. The sophomore ran all over the Mountaineers, to the tune of 234 yards and three touchdowns, and looks to keep the momentum going in front of the home crowd. Finding offensive balance this year would be huge for a North Carolina team with lofty expectations, especially as they figure out who their top weapons will be on the perimeter. With that being said, I still think the best plan of attack for the Tar Heels will be through the air, with Maye slinging it around. The Gophers have two elite defensive backs in Tyler Nubin and Justin Walley, but they are still mixing and matching on the back-end and the Heels present the toughest pass offense they see yet on the young season. Up front, I have less questions about the Gophers, who have been incredibly well-coached under coordinator Joe Rossi and plug gaps as well as you will see at this level. Getting pressure on Maye will be the challenge, but the front seven always makes things difficult for opposing ball-carriers.

The Gopher offense remains in the early stages of an offensive transition away from the Tanner Morgan era, with Athan Kaliakmanis under center. The first two games have been a rollercoaster ride for the young QB; you see the arm talent come in spurts, but the poor decision-making often comes along with it. He is going to have opportunities against this leaky Tar Heel secondary, can he take advantage? It will be the first road start of the fall for Kaliakmanis and while he has already played in several rowdy environments, how he handles it will go a long way in determining Minnesota's fortunes. The good news is that last the Gophers appear to have found their go-to back last week after an underwhelming opener. Freshman Darius Taylor notched 193 yards in the win over Eastern Michigan and looks like has a real chance to emerge as the guy his first season on campus. Veterans Sean Tyler and Bryce Williams are still going to feature in, but could this be a huge encore opportunity for Taylor? Certainly, the Tar Heels have better athletes on the field than Eastern Michigan, but this rush defense has had its struggles under Mack Brown. Yet, the X-factor of the game may end up coming down to the Gopher O-Line versus North Carolina pass rush. The Tar Heels pounded Spencer Rattler and the Gamecocks all night in the opener, but weren't quite able to match that last week. Minnesota has questions up front and if Kaliakmanis doesn't have time to move, it's hard to imagine this offense stringing together enough points to match Maye going the other way.

This is one of those early-season contests where you flip a coin and let it be. We still don't have a great idea on who either of these teams are, and both have issues they're trying to smooth out at this juncture of the season. Picking the home team feels a bit like a cop out, but Maye should be able to get things rolling against this Gopher secondary, and the Minnesota offense still appears to be figuring it out. The Heels are the safer pick right now.

The Pick: North Carolina, 31 Minnesota, 27

Other Picks

(#15) Kansas State Wildcats @ Missouri Tigers -- Old Big 12 foes collide in Columbia, which feels like it could be upset territory. The Wildcats have looked good early, while Missouri barely squeaked out a home win over Middle Tennessee, so this doesn't feel super difficult.

The Pick: Kansas State, 28 Missouri, 16

South Carolina Gamecocks @ (#1) Georgia Bulldogs -- South Carolina has been an occasional thorn in the side for Georgia over the years, but what are the chances they go into Sanford Stadium and upset the nation's top team?

The Pick: Georgia, 38 South Carolina, 20

BYU Cougars @ Arkansas Razorbacks -- An underrated game on the Week Three docket, BYU seemed to figure things out offensively last weekend and could give Arkansas a fright at home. Yet, heading into Fayetteville and coming out victorious is an arduous task.

The Pick: Arkansas, 24 BYU, 21

Upset: (#14) LSU Tigers @ Mississippi State Bulldogs -- I don't love many of the upset opportunities on the board this week, so this feels like a bit of a settle. With that being said, I have real concerns about LSU's secondary, and Mississippi State is going to look to throw the ball around in Starkville.

The Pick: Mississippi State, 35 LSU, 31

Superdog (covers > 21 point spread) Wyoming Cowboys (+31) @ Texas Longhorns -- Prime hangover opportunity for the Longhorns as they welcome the Cowboys to town. Wyoming isn't going to match Texas offensively, but they'll muck it up enough to cover.

Lock of the Week: Appalachian State Mountaineers (-8) vs. East Carolina Pirates -- Could Appalachian State be a bit drained after their heartbreaking loss to UNC last Saturday? Perhaps, but they'll get East Carolina at home and the Pirates have done little to inspire confidence they'll be able to cover this spread.

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