By Kendall Webb
So Texas A&M, the SEC and the rest of the college football world finally got the word they had all been waiting on.
Well … sort of. Apparently Aggies’ quarterback Johnny Manziel was guilty of something because he’s been suspended for the first half of the first game of the season, and well, you don’t get suspended for doing nothing (we think). Of course, just about every decision the NCAA makes these days is suspect, and this one quickly became comedic fodder for sportswriters and sports fans alike.
Manziel’s half-suspension may or may not be warranted depending on your point of view and rooting interest. The official verdict is that the NCAA decided it violated the organization’s rule against a player permitting his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind. The NCAA could find no proof that Manziel accepted payment for autographing various items, but the fact he signed those items and apparently knew they would be resold is where the suspension comes in. Whether or not any money changed hands is irrelevant at that point.
Never mind that when the story broke a few weeks ago the NCAA was actually breaking the same rule by advertising Manziel jerseys for sale on its own merchandise website.
Of course, no matter how appropriate it might be in a summer that included the NCAA’s decision to force a former Marine at Middle Tennessee to sit out a season due to his participation in a military intramural league (a decision quickly reversed in the face of public outcry), the NCAA isn’t going to suspend itself. It might, however, need to suspend a few of its own, and it might be time for new leadership at the top (we’re looking at you, Mark Emmert).
None of this excuses the fact that the young kid known as Johnny Football should have known better. Manziel’s summer of living on the edge seemed to inevitably be leading to a moment that would cost him time on the football field, and in the end, that’s exactly what it did. That’s Manziel’s fault and his alone no matter how silly the NCAA’s response appears in the face of its own hypocrisy. You can argue that Manziel shouldn’t have gotten anything, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But I’d also say Manziel got exactly what he’s been asking for. You don’t walk along the edge as much as he does without occasionally falling off the curb.
Opening Weekend in the SEC
North Carolina Tar Heels at No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks
5 p.m. Thursday, August 29 (ESPN)
STORYLINE: Clowney vs. North Carolina’s inexperienced offensive line
You don’t stop a player like Jadeveon Clowney. You just try to minimize his impact, and hope that if he knocks your helmet off a la Vincent Smith, that your head isn’t still in it. North Carolina has one of college football’s best offensive tackles upfront in James Hurst, but three new starters alongside him on the offensive line including two redshirt freshmen. Tar Heels’ quarterback Bryn Renner will have to get rid of the ball quickly, and minimize the mistakes under heavy pressure.
PREDICTION: Even SEC teams haven’t been able to stop Clowney, and we think the big-time opening night atmosphere will play better to the home team here. We’ll take South Carolina to win by at least ten.
Ole Miss Rebels at No. 30 Vanderbilt Commodores
8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 29 (ESPN)
STORYLINE: The Ole Miss freshmen and Vandy’s off-the-field distractions
Ole Miss fans are understandably excited. That freshman class they signed in February is the key to what is potentially a very big future, but at least for now, they are still freshmen. And now is where it actually gets a little scary for Rebel fans because many of those freshmen are being counted on to provide quality depth in the mighty SEC West which has produced five of the past six BCS national champions. Meanwhile, Vandy’s frustration started early this year with a summer rape case that saw five Commodores eventually suspended. Vandy head coach James Franklin is a master at circling the wagons and getting his team to feed off an us-against-the-world mentality, but it remains to be seen if this Vandy team is really ready for the start of the 2013 season.
PREDICTION: A tough game to get a read on. Ole Miss has some experience at key positions including quarterback Bo Wallace, but they are likely to struggle at times with so many freshmen on the field. If there’s one thing Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin is good at, it’s circling the wagons and getting the most out of his players with his us-against-the-world approach. We’ll predict that it’s good for another win in Nashville, and we’ll take Vandy in a close one similar to last year’s game in Oxford.
Toledo Rockets at No. 7 Florida Gators
11:21 a.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPN GamePlan/ESPN3)
STORYLINE: Toledo’s returning starters vs. Florida’s depth
Toledo has never faced an SEC opponent, and a trip to The Swamp is a frightening way to make your first visit to SEC country. But the Rockets at least come to town with their stars ready to take the field. Running back David Fluellen (1,498 rushing yards), quarterback Terrance Owens (3,102 total yards) and Bernard Reedy (1,113 yards receiving) at least give the Rockets hope. Meanwhile, Florida is dealing with the loss of several key starters including running back Matt Jones and linebacker Antonio Morrison. Throw in the fact that Florida has only three starters back on defense, and there will be a lot of new faces taking the field for the Gators.
PREDICTION: Toledo might keep this interesting for awhile if Driskel and the offense stall without Jones to help move the chains. But in the end, the Gators have superior talent across the board and the homefield advantage. It wouldn’t be stunning if Toledo kept this to around 14-17 points, but in the end, Florida should win comfortably.
Rice Owls at No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies
Noon Saturday, August 31 (ESPN)
STORYLINE: One half with Manziel, one half without him
This Rice team was no pushover a year ago, and 19 starters return to an Owls’ squad that went 7-6 and dominated Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. With Johnny Manziel suspended for the first half, the Owls would seemingly have an advantage when it comes to gameplanning, but then again, they also have to prepare for two quarterbacks now. If they somehow manage to build a first-half lead, however, this game could stretch well into the second half before it’s ultimately decided.
PREDICTION: Don’t count on that. Texas A&M has superior talent across the board, and we suspect they’re still quite a bit better than Rice without him. They might not be four touchdowns better, however, which is about where the spread is running on this one. With Manziel on the sideline for one half, we’ll pick the Aggies to win while the Owls beat the spread.
Mississippi St. at No. 8 Oklahoma St.
2:30 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ABC/ESPN2)
STORYLINE: Oklahoma State’s two quarterbacks vs. Mississippi State’s one
Both these teams were 8-5 last year, but Oklahoma State is a trendy pick to win the Big 12 this year (they are my pick as well) while Mississippi State is still regarded as being in the bottom half of the SEC West. This game will give us our first look on how Mike Gundy plans to employ his two-quarterback system featuring senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh while Mississippi State hopes one is better than two with Tyler Russell leading the Bulldogs’ offense.
PREDICTION: Unfortunately, we think two is better than one in this case, but it doesn’t have as much to do with the quarterbacks really as it has to do with their weapons. Mississippi State’s Russell will have to work with several new receivers while Oklahoma State has College Football America Starting Lineup member Josh Stewart at wide out. Stewart should put up video game numbers in 2013 while following in the footsteps of former Cowboy standouts Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon. It should be enough to propel Oklahoma State to a comfortable win on opening day.
La.-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns at Arkansas Razorbacks
3 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPN Gameplan/ESPN3)
STORYLINE: A new era begins at Arkansas
The Bret Bielema era begins here at Arkansas, and the Mark Hudspeth era continues at Louisiana-Lafayette. In the case of Bielema and Arkansas, it’s a fresh start for the Razorbacks who will be on their third head coach in three years after John L. Smith basically served as a one-year fill-in after the Bobby Petrino fiasco. It won’t be a walk in the park, however, to open with Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off back-to-back 9-4 seasons which produced the first two FBS bowl bids in school history. It isn’t lost on either of these coaches, either, that Arkansas was beaten by Lafayette’s rival and fellow Sun Belt member Louisiana-Monroe last year.
PREDICTION: This is where Arkansas begins to turn it around in the SEC. Bielema is a fine game planner and recruiter, although he’ll have to win early with somebody’s else’s guys. Hudspeth will have his Cajuns ready to go, and we expect they’ll hang around for quite awhile. This could ultimately be a game decided by just a handful of mistakes and/or a couple of big plays, but we’re confident that Arkansas finds a way to get it done at home.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech Hokies at the Georgia Dome
4:30 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPN)
STORYLINE: Alabama’s still No. 1 but how far has Virginia Tech fallen?
Everybody knows where Alabama stands here – three national titles in four years, and well-stocked to make a run at a record third in a row and fourth in five years. The real question is how far have Frank Beamer’s Hokies fallen? There’s a lot of experience on hand – defensive end James Gayle leads a defense that could be pretty stout – but the offense remains a question mark. Quarterback Logan Thomas is inconsistent and there’s a lot of inexperience at receiver and on the offensive line that could spell trouble.
PREDICTION: We’re going to go with an Alabama blowout here with AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon finding ways to poke holes in that Virginia Tech defense. The problem for the Hokies is, we don’t think they’ll have the same luck with the Alabama defense.
Austin Peay Governors at Tennessee Volunteers
6 p.m. ET Saturday, August 31 (ESPN Gameplan/ESPN3)
STORYLINE: The Butch Jones era begins at Tennessee
As far as the game goes, it won’t be close, and it won’t tell us anything about where Tennessee stands against SEC level competition. It will, however, give us a first look at Jones’ program and how the Vols are responding to his leadership.
PREDICTION: Beyond that, it’s just another blowout between a middle-of-the-road FBS program over an undermanned FCS squad as Tennessee runs their in-state brethren off the field.
Washington St. Cougars at Auburn Tigers
6 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPNU)
STORYLINE: Year One of the Gus Malzahn era vs. Year Two of the Mike Leach era
These programs aren’t far apart in terms of the current evolution of their programs. Washington State was 3-9 in the first season under former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach last year, and will be looking for signs of progress in his second year. Auburn was also 3-9 in what turned out to be the last year of the Gene Chizik era. With only one year of major college head coaching experience under his belt, Auburn has turned the program over to Gus Malzahn who went 9-3 in his only season at Arkansas State.
PREDICTION: As bad as these two teams were last year, the home field advantage should be huge. It’s hard to predict 3-9 teams, but we’re leaning toward a comfortable Auburn win at home.
Murray St. Racers at Missouri Tigers
6 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPN Gameplan/ESPN3)
STORYLINE: Murray State’s pass defense vs. Missouri’s pass defense
Missouri should have no problem moving the ball against Murray State’s pass defense which yielded a 65 percent completion rate last year and was rarely able to generate a pass rush. But the Tigers’ own pass defense will be tested by a Racers’ team that averaged more than 50 passing plays per game in 2012.
PREDICTION: Don’t be surprised if Murray State has some early success and manages to put some points on the board – 20 or more wouldn’t even surprise us. But Missouri should be able to answer in the 2-to-1 range, and in the end it should be a blowout for the Tigers.
Kentucky Wildcats vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Nashville, Tennessee
6 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPNews)
STORYLINE: Two head coaching debuts
Kentucky bottomed out at 2-10 in Joker Phillips’ final season as head coach, and made the move to hire Mark Stoops who joins brothers Bob (Oklahoma’s head coach) and Mike (former Arizona head coach) as having served as a head coach at the FBS level. Western Kentucky, meanwhile, earned its first FBS bowl bid in the final season under Willie Taggart who left to accept the head coaching position at South Florida. They’ve turned to former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino to keep the program near the top of the Sun Belt in their final season in the league.
PREDICTION: It seems strange, but these two Kentucky schools will head south to play this game at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. The Music City is one of Western Kentucky’s big alumni bases, however, and their own home stadium an hour north in Bowling Green is too small to accommodate the large crowd. But Western managed to win in Lexington last year, and we think Petrino and Co. will pull another upset in Music City.
No. 4 Georgia at No. 5 Clemson
7 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ABC)
STORYLINE: Georgia’s Aaron Murray vs. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd
It doesn’t get any bigger than this on opening night. We’ve got Georgia No. 4 heading into the season with our vote and Clemson is No. 5. You’ve got two of college football’s top quarterbacks in Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, and the game is at Clemson’s Death Valley to even out any slight advantages Georgia might have on paper. This is huge, and one of these teams starts the season on a roll while the other sees its national title hopes receive a crushing blow in the season’s first game.
PREDICTION: It might be a situation where the last team that has the ball wins. We’re going with Georgia in a nailbiter on the road.
No. 17 LSU vs. TCU at Arlington, TX
8 p.m. Saturday, August 31 (ESPN)
STORYLINE: Both teams are fighting the perception that they may have slipped a notch. The winner gets a brief reprieve.
Another interesting opening night clash although it remains to be seen just exactly where these two programs rank in the pecking order of their respective leagues. The perception is that LSU lost too many players to make a serious run at the SEC West with most prognosticators picking them behind both Alabama and Texas A&M. Meanwhile, TCU will likely have a hard time emerging from the middle of the Big 12 pack.
PREDICTION: This is a tough one and a bit of a toss-up, but we’ll say that the loss of TCU’s Devonte Fields to suspension will hurt the Horned Frogs more than any of LSU’s major losses to graduation and the NFL. LSU in a close one.