January 1,2013; Tampa, FL, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) against the Michigan Wolverines during the second half of the 2013 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Michigan Wolverines 33-28. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Football: Week 1 Preview and Predictions

The college football season gets started this evening, with three SEC teams getting their seasons started tonight. The offseason is finally over, and with it goes all the accusations of wrongdoing, and all the other offseason story lines with which we have all grown tired. It’s time for real football to start, with due respect to the NFL’s preseason. All the hype surrounding teams gives way to the actual start of games. It’s put-up or shut-up time, and here’s a preview of all the action around the Southeastern Conference in week one.

North Carolina at No. 6 South Carolina
Thursday, 6 PM ET – ESPN

South Carolina is a trendy pick in the SEC East this season thanks to their dominating defense, led by all-everything defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

Clowney is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and he headlines what has the potential to be the SEC’s very best defense. The big question mark is South Carolina’s offense, which finished last season ranked 82nd in the country in total offense.

Senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson will likely split time at quarterback in tonight’s game, and Steve Spurrier needs one of them to emerge as the unquestioned No. 1 on the depth chart. Sophomore Mike Davis will get the starting nod at running back, but fellow sophomore Brandon Wilds is likely to get a fair share of carries against the Tar Heels. Junior receiver/returner Bruce Ellington is the biggest weapon for South Carolina’s offense, and he is likely to give North Carolina fits whenever he is on the field.

North Carolina is considered a serious challenger for the ACC’s Coastal Division, and this game with the Gamecocks should be a good measuring stick for them. All the optimism in Chapel Hill surrounds the return of senior quarterback Bryn Renner, who piloted one of the best offenses in the nation in 2012. The Tar Heels averaged 485 yards per game on offense last year, which ranked 14th in the country.

It will be strength against strength when North Carolina’s offense is on the field. The Tar Heels do have to replace three starters on their offensive line, which was probably the best in the ACC a year ago. Fortunately for them, senior left tackle James Hurst is one of the best tackles in the country, but he’ll have the tough task of blocking South Carolina’s Clowney. It could actually be senior defensive end Chaz Sutton who makes a bigger splash than Clowney as he goes against a first-year starter at right tackle.

South Carolina is the better team as the rankings show, but I figure their offense will be a bit sloppy in week one. Still, their defense should more than make up for it as they get their season off to a good start.

Prediction: South Carolina 20, North Carolina 13

Ole Miss at Vanderbilt
Thursday, 9:15 PM ET – ESPN

This should be an interesting nightcap in Nashville between up and coming teams in the conference as we get a juicy SEC matchup on the first night of the season. Vanderbilt took a major step forward in James Franklin’s second season. Excitement is at an all-time high in Nashville after last season’s 9-4 season that ended with a win over NC State in the Music City Bowl. The Commodores return 13 starters from last season’s team, but have to replace last season’s starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers, along with running back Zac Stacy, who rushed for over 1000 yards the last two seasons.

Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels will be the team’s starting quarterback and senior Wesley Tate will try to fill the big shoes left behind by Stacy. Carta-Samuels has the luxury of throwing to one of the best receivers in the conference, if not the nation, in senior Jordan Matthews. Matthews had over 1300 yards and 8 touchdowns as a junior last year.

The Commodores were most improved defensively, as they finished 2012 with a Top-25 defensive unit, and they return six starters from that defense.

Much like Nashville, optimism is high in Oxford after Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze reeled in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, highlighted by freak defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who is slated to start at one of the end positions tonight. That’s terrible news for Vanderbilt’s offensive line. Along with a super freshman class, Ole Miss returns 15 starters from a team that made major strides in year one under Freeze.

Ole Miss fans are expecting the Rebels to be a contender in the SEC West this season, and while that may be a bit premature due to the youth-laden roster, Colonel Reb should take another step forward in 2013. They’ll need improvement from starting quarterback Bo Wallace, who has a bevy of weapons on offense with the likes of running back Jeff Scott, and wide receivers Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan, Vince Sanders, and true freshman Laquon Treadwell.

Vanderbilt has the home field advantage, but Ole Miss is the more talented team, and they should start the season off with an SEC win.

Prediction: Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 21

Toledo at No. 10 Florida
Saturday, 12:21 PM ET – SEC Network

Some are calling for the upset here as Toledo returns nine starters on offense from a team that won nine games a year ago. I don’t see it, even though Florida must replace eight starters from their top five defense. The cupboards aren’t exactly bare on that side of the ball as Will Muschamp has picked up recruiting right where Urban Meyer left off.

The big question mark for Florida is their offense, which ranked 103rd in the country a year ago. The Gators were able to win 11 games in spite of their offensive shortcomings. Jeff Driskel returns at quarterback, but Florida lost one of their top offensive play makers in Andre Debose to a season-ending knee injury. I think Florida is primed to take a step backward in 2013, but I don’t think they’ll lose at home to Toledo.

Florida’s massive advantage in the trenches will be too much, and running backs Matt Jones and Mack Brown will likely have big days against a Toledo defense that was statistically one of the worst in the country last season.

Prediction: Florida 34, Toledo 14

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M
Saturday, 1:00 PM ET – ESPN

The NCAA, in all of its infinite wisdom, finally ruled that Johnny Manziel did not profit from the sale of his autographs. And yet Manziel was still suspended for the first half of Saturday’s game against Rice, which is totally a ratings ploy by ESPN who wants to keep fans interested in the second half of what will almost certainly be a blowout (Kidding. Probably). In Manziel’s absence, junior Matt Joeckel or freshman Kenny Hill will get the start on Saturday.

Now, Texas A&M hopes to put all these allegations in the past as they move forward into what seems to be another promising season in College Station. Rice will see heavy dose of senior running back Ben Malena in the first half while Manziel is sidelined, and then Johnny Football will check in and put the game to bed early in the third quarter.

This should be a blowout, but it will be fun to get to watch Manziel finally play football again.

Prediction: Texas A&M 48, Rice 14

Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas
Saturday, 4:00 PM ET

Bret Bielema’s Arkansas debut won’t be the cake walk that many are expecting. The Razorbacks are a double-digit home favorite over the Ragin Cajuns, but Louisiana Lafayette is the reigning Sun Belt Champions, and most expect them to claim the top spot in the conference once again. As for the Hogs, they are coming off a disastrous 4-8 season, and must replace quarterback Tyler Wilson. Sophomore Brandon Allen takes the reigns, and fans hope that he has learned from his struggles a year ago.

Arkansas will have to run the ball better in 2013 if they want to take a step forward. The Razorbacks were dead last in the SEC at 118 yards per game on the ground in 2012. Fortunately, they have a head coach who loves to run the ball, so expect a steady diet of Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins against a Lafayette defense that returns only three starters.

While I do expect the Ragin’ Cajuns to put up a good fight, Arkansas is simply the more talented team. Bret Bielema’s debut should be a good one in Fayetteville.

Prediction: Arkansas 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 20

No. 1 Alabama vs. Virginia Tech
Saturday, 5:30 ET – ESPN

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for, and it’s unlikely to disappoint when these two kick off in the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon. Virginia Tech has been ravished by injuries in the offseason, and nearly 40 percent of their travel roster for the game are true or redshirt freshman. Due to attrition in the defensive backfield, freshman Kendall Fuller will likely draw the short straw and be forced to cover the Tide’s Amari Cooper.

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas is a wildcard, and his ability to make plays with his arm and his legs may frustrate the Alabama defense at times. But, with a freshman protecting his blindside, Alabama’s defense will swarm him all night long. AJ McCarron, accompanied by the most loaded skill-position group in the Crimson Tide’s illustrious history, will open the game up with the pass, which should force Virginia Tech to back off the line of scrimmage. That should turn sophomore sensation T.J. Yeldon loose on the Hokies defense.

This is far from the same Virginia Tech team that Alabama faced off with at this same venue back in 2009. Look for this game to be a near mirror-image of last season’s opener against Michigan as Alabama gets its quest for a three-peat off to a flawless start.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Virginia Tech 7

Austin Peay at Tennessee
Saturday, 6:00 PM ET

Butch Jones seems to have the Tennessee program moving in the right direction, at least on the recruiting trail, but it’s going to be a rough first season for him in the SEC. Even with the dearth of talent on the Volunteers’ roster after losing the majority of their skill-position players from what was a top-25 offense, and the general ineffectiveness of Derek Dooley’s recruiting, Tennessee shouldn’t have much trouble on Saturday against Austin Peay.

The Governors were one of the worst teams in the OVC last season as they finished the year with a 2-9 record. New Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley should get his career off to a good start before reality sets in when the Vols travel to Oregon in two weeks.

Prediction: Tennessee 44, Austin Peay 10

Washington State at Auburn
Saturday, 7:00 PM ET – ESPNU

A lot of pundits seem to be drinking the kool-aid aboard the Gus Bus, but don’t count me among them. I think the Tigers will be improved from last season, but that doesn’t exactly mean much when you consider just how historically dreadful they were in Gene Chizik’s final season. Auburn fans are excited for the debut of JUCO transfer Nick Marshall at quarterback, but his 20 interceptions on the junior college level last season is a cause for concern.

Auburn is listed as a hefty favorite, with most sites favoring the Tigers by more than two touchdowns. I’m not sure I understand that. Auburn finished with the same exact record as Washington State in 2012, and I wouldn’t consider Gus Malzahn to be any better of an offensive mind than Mike Leach in Pullman. Auburn’s defense was lousy last season, and Leach will let quarterback Connor Halliday air it out all evening against the Tigers defense.

Still, I like Auburn at home to get the win as the Cougars make the 2400+ mile trek to the Plains. While Auburn likely wins, it’ll be closer than most think.

Prediction: Auburn 34, Washington State 27

Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky
Saturday, 7:00 PM ET

This game is being played at a neutral site in Nashville, Tennessee as Kentucky looks to avenge last season’s embarrassing overtime loss to the Hilltoppers. Vegas expects this game to be close with the Wildcats being only a four and a half point favorite. Our old friend Bobby Petrino has picked himself up off the pavement, fixed his motorcycle, and is now the head man at Western Kentucky. You can expect marked offensive improvements for the Hilltoppers with Petrino now in charge, and his offense could give Kentucky fits on Saturday.

Western Kentucky also boasts last season’s No. 1 ranked defense in the Sun Belt, and middle linebacker Andrew Jackson is one of the most underrated players in the country. He would start for most programs around the country. The jury is still out on who will start at quarterback for Mark Stoops on Saturday. It’ll either be sophomore dual-threat Jalen Whitlow, who started the team’s final seven games or sophomore Maxwell Smith who had a strong start to the season before injuring his ankle and never returning.

With Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown bringing the “air raid” to Lexington, expect this game to be a bit higher scoring than what most would think. This one is a coin-flip in my opinion, but I’ll take Bobby Petrino’s Hilltoppers to knock Kentucky off for the second straight year as he gets his return to coaching off to a quick start.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 31, Kentucky 27

Murray State vs. Missouri
Saturday, 7:00 PM ET

Missouri’s transition into the SEC didn’t go as well as they planned, and after last season’s 5-7 mark, head coach Gary Pinkel, who has held the job for 22 years, finds himself squarely on the hot seat. The Tigers will get a boost by the return of Henry Josey, who was a 1000-yard rusher before tearing his ACL and missing all of last season. If James Franklin can stay healthy and revert back to form at quarterback, and they can get a breakout year from former five-star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, then Missouri’s offense will be dangerous.

Their defense, however, could struggle, especially after losing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to the NFL. The Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC in defense in 2012, and don’t figure to make an improvement this season without their best player. Still, this is a glorified tune-up game before they finish their non-conference slate with Toledo, Indiana, and Arkansas State.

Prediction: Missouri 42, Murray State 14

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson
Saturday, 8:00 PM ET – ABC

The game of the week in college football’s opening weekend is between last season’s SEC Eastern Division champion Georgia, and a Clemson team that finished off their season with an impressive victory over LSU in the Chick Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Expectations are high for both squads as both look for a signature win to start the season.

This is a tough game to get a read on because both teams have collapsed under the weight of expectations in big season openers like this. The last time Clemson had expectations like this, they ran into Nick Saban and Alabama in Atlanta, and never recovered after losing 34-10. The last time Georgia played in a big season opener like this, they lost by two touchdowns to Kellen Moore and Boise State.

This should be a relatively high scoring game, with neither defense likely being able to stop the opposing offense. Georgia’s offense returns eight starters led by quarterback Aaron Murray. With all five starters returning on an offensive line that may be the best in the country, the Bulldogs should open up holes for sophomore phenom Todd Gurley and give Murray ample time to find receivers like Malcolm Mitchell, who is one of the more underrated players in the country.

Georgia’s defense, however, is a different story. The Bulldogs return just three starters, and their young secondary will be tasked with stopping Heisman candidate Tajh Boyd and electrifying wide receiver Sammy Watkins. This one should be back and forth for much of the night, but I’m not exactly buying all the hype surrounding Clemson, and I think the Bulldogs will pull of a huge win to start the season.

Prediction: Georgia 35, Clemson 32

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU
Saturday, 9:00 PM ET – ESPN

The final SEC game of the opening weekend is the Cowboys classic that pits LSU against TCU. People have been sleeping on LSU all offseason after they were hit hard by early entrees into the NFL Draft. Still, the Tigers don’t rebuild; they simply reload. Even with only three starters back on defense, there is talent all over the field. They do return eight starters offensively, including senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was greatly improved during the second half of last season. They have a stable of bruising running backs, and then game changing receiver/returner Odell Beckham Jr.

TCU is a serious contender in the Big 12 after bringing back nine starters from a top-20 defense, and welcoming back senior quarterback Casey Pachall, who missed the final nine games of 2012 after leaving the school to get treatment for substance abuse. The Horned Frogs are a sexy upset pick in this game, but I think LSU is not only a contender in the SEC, they are a contender in the national championship hunt.

I figure this will be a close game, but LSU’s defense will mature quickly, and their young but extremely talented defensive line should make life tough for Pachall. This should be a defensive struggle for most of the way, and in the end Les Miles will get the best of Gary Patterson.

Prediction: LSU 17, TCU 14

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