After a milquetoast “Week Zero” between teams that won’t win their conferences, the rest of the nation now gets to watch their schools battle on the gridiron. Here’s what you can expect each week of the 2019 college football season: I’ll take a look at three big games, try to give you some insights on the most important players, what the X-factors and keys to victory will be, and tell you how I would bet the game as far as the point spread is concerned.
Let’s get right into it.
No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC)
If you think SEC bias is real, you’ll love the point spread that Vegas put out for this game. Auburn is ranked 16th in the country and starting a true freshman quarterback in Bo Nix against a team that’s ranked 11th in the country and will be playing a neutral-site game at AT&T Stadium instead of a true road game at Auburn. Vegas has the Tigers as 3.5-point favorites.
In high school, Nix set the Alabama state record for most total touchdowns in a career and is a hugely talented quarterback. Will that translate into success in his first college game ever? I’m not so sure. What I do know is the Ducks will have to respect his ability to run the ball. That could be important if he initially struggles throwing downfield.
With head coach Gus Malzahn back to calling the plays for Auburn, the Tigers will need to establish the run early in order to open it up for Nix. Auburn has the potential to be explosive on offense, but it almost always come from being effective on the ground.
While NFL scouts are drooling over Jake Herbert, the Ducks’ 6’6″ signal caller, he’s still not the best quarterback in his own conference. Herbert completed less than 60% of his passes last year, but he did end up throwing for over 3,100 yards and 29 touchdowns along with eight interceptions. He’ll need to be more accurate if Oregon wants to win this game and also have a shot to win the Pac-12.
The X-factor in this game will be Oregon’s offensive line against Auburn’s defensive line. Oregon’s offensive line is very experienced and should be one of the best in the country. Meanwhile, Auburn has the best defensive lineman in college football, defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Brown might have been a first-round pick had he declared for the NFL Draft, but he decided to return for his senior season and will anchor a very talented defensive line. This game will be won in the trenches and the team that wins this particular battle will have the edge.
The spread: Auburn (-3.5)
My pick: Oregon has something to prove this year since the Pac-12 North could be theirs for the taking while Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn might need at least a nine-win season to keep his job. There’s a lot on the line for both of these teams. Ultimately, I think Herbert and the Oregon offensive line will be able to wear down the Tigers defense with their tempo while Auburn will show flashes of potential on offense instead of consistent competence in Nix’s first game. I’m picking the Ducks to win so I’m taking the points.
Duke vs. No. 2 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban always talks about “the process” and doing little things right. That process looked to be working to perfection last season as Alabama took a perfect record and its status as the defending national champions into last year’s national title game against the Clemson Tigers.
What happened next shocked much of the college football world. The Tigers didn’t just win the national title for the second time in three years. They throttled the Crimson Tide, 44-16. It wasn’t a contest, it was a beatdown.
Given how last season ended for Alabama, it’s hard not to see what happens this season through the prism of that loss in the title game. While Saban doesn’t dwell on losses and will say that last year is in the past and that they should and will only focus on the game at hand and not get ahead of themselves, this team wants a rematch. You know it, I know it and they know it.
Duke has been consistent under David Cutcliffe, going to bowl games in six of the last seven years, but the Blue Devils have some holes to fill from last year’s squad. Senior Quentin Harris will take over for Daniel Jones and the receiving corps is very inexperienced. One of the more talented receivers that was returning, Jake Bobo, fractured his right clavicle in practice earlier this month and is out indefinitely. While the Duke offensive line should be good by ACC Coastal standards, the Blue Devils will be facing a defensive line and overall defense that is one of the best in the country every single year. Keep an eye out for Duke’s running backs though. They show some promise.
Tua Tagovailoa’s health and the SEC Championship game led to him finishing as the runner-up for the Heisman last year. This could be his final season at ‘Bama since he’s eligible to go into the NFL Draft after the season is over. He was electric last year, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards with 43 touchdowns and only six interceptions and adding another five scores on the ground.
The Crimson Tide can also lay claim to one of, if not the best, wide receiver corps in the country. Reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy leads the unit and will look to build on an incredible 2018 where he hauled in 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns. His speed causes teams to take their attention away from stopping the run game because they’re so worried about Jeudy getting open and gashing them for a big play.
One of the interesting X-factors in this game will be Duke’s secondary against Alabama’s wide receivers. Duke’s pass rush wasn’t good at all last season. If the Blue Devils can’t get pressure on Tua when he drops back to throw, they’ll have a tough time getting the Crimson Tide offense off the field.
The spread: Alabama (-35.0)
My pick: Nick Saban’s squad has been stewing for a long time now after suffering that crushing defeat in the national title game. That’s bad news for Duke. I expect the Crimson Tide to win and win big in this neutral-site game in Atlanta. I’m taking Alabama to win and cover thte big spread.
Houston at No. 4 Oklahoma (Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ABC)
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has had two quarterbacks in the past two seasons: Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Both won the Heisman Trophy. Jalen Hurts, who was a fantastic quarterback at Alabama but lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa, is trying to make it three Heisman winners in a row for the Sooners after transferring to Oklahoma. We know he can run and throw, so he should fit in really well with Riley’s offense.
Overall, the defense should be improved. The pass defense, which was abysmal last year, has to be better and it will be better. On offense, it all starts with the run game. Sophomore Kennedy Brooks led the nation last season with a mind-numbing 8.9 yards per carry and also had over 1,000 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns. Junior Trey Sermon nearly ran for 1,000 yards as well. He averaged nearly six yards a carry while leading the team with 13 rushing touchdowns. Sermon also showed that he can catch the ball out of the backfield, averaging just over 15 yards per catch.
Many across the country wondered why Dana Holgorsen left his job as head coach of West Virginia, a Power Five school, to become the head coach at Houston, a Group of Five school, but he said it was “an easy decision.” The passing concepts of Holgorsen’s offense will be very familiar to Houston players and its fans so the transition might not be too difficult.
Senior quarterback D’Eriq King is a dark horse candidate for the Heisman and he could do wonders for his candidacy if he leads Houston to an upset win against the Sooners. He was having a historic season for the Cougars last year before tearing his meniscus against Tulane in November. ESPN helped put his numbers from last season into context:
“King set the American Athletic Conference’s single-season record for touchdowns responsible for with 50 and led the nation in points responsible for per game with an average of 27.5. He averaged 332.4 total yards of offense per game last year and was one of only three quarterbacks in FBS history with at least 35 passing touchdowns and 13 rushing touchdowns.”
The X-factor in this game will be Houston’s defensive line. Without Ed Oliver, the ninth overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft, and some other starters from last year’s team, how will the line hold up? Will the Cougars be able to get any pressure on Jalen Hurts and will they be able to stop the Sooners run game at the point of attack?
The spread: Oklahoma (-23.0)
The pick: I’m fully expecting an entertaining game as these two explosive offenses trade touchdowns, but I think that Oklahoma’s stellar running game will be the big difference. I’m taking the Sooners to win the game, but I think the line is too high against an offense as good as Houston’s. My advice? Take the points.
Noah Niederhoffer (@NNiederhoffer) is a producer at SiriusXM and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Originally from Atlanta, he now lives in Washington, D.C.