Georgia, Ohio State Face Revealing Tests in Week 1

Ohio State Buckeyes QB CJ Stroud
Ohio State Buckeyes QB CJ Stroud
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 1 - For everything we learn in the bowls, for all the roster changes and depth charts we can analyze over the months-long offseason, the first week of the college football season tells us so much more than anything before it. Want some evidence? Look at what we learned in last year's openers:

  • Ohio State's tense 45-31 win against Minnesota showed that the Buckeyes' defense was a glaring weakness that would haunt them throughout the season.
  • North Carolina's 17-10 upset loss to Virginia Tech foreshadowed that the Tar Heels' preseason top-10 ranking would give way to an underwhelming 6-7 campaign.
  • Alabama's dominant 44-13 win over Miami reinforced that the Crimson Tide would remain elite—and set off weeks of unraveling for the Hurricanes.
  • Oklahoma's 40-35 escape from Tulane and Iowa State's 16-10 close call against Northern Iowa suggested that the Big 12 hierarchy would get a shakeup.
  • Oregon's 31-24 scuffle with Fresno State was an early indication that the Ducks would struggle to play to their talent consistently, but it also showed that the Bulldogs were a force to be reckoned with.
  • UCLA's emphatic 38-27 win over LSU knocked the Tigers out of an unearned No. 16 ranking that the Bruins promptly took for themselves.
  • Iowa's 34-6 blowout of Indiana launched the Hoosiers' plummet from a preseason No. 17 ranking to a 2-10 final record.
  • Montana's 13-7 shocker against Washington was an ignominious start to a disappointing Pac-12 North title defense for the Huskies.

And that's only listing games involving ranked teams; other informative matchups included Arkansas rolling over Rice to start a breakout season, UTSA shocking Illinois in the first of 11 straight wins to start the year, and San Diego State throttling New Mexico State behind Matt Araiza's nine punts for a glowing 56.8-yard average. Not every game proved a harbinger of things to come—Oklahoma State and Baylor evading Missouri State and Texas State by single-digit scores ended up looking very odd by the season's end—but we knew much more by the end of Week 1 than we did before it began.

So what does this year's opening slate have to offer? Will top college football playoff contenders Georgia and Ohio State deliver statement victories over strong opponents in Oregon and Notre Dame, or can one of the challengers pull off a major upset? How will last year's upstarts, from Houston and UTSA (who face off in San Antonio) to Utah (which pays a visit to Florida), fare in 2022? Well, that's the beauty of Week 1: there are some things for which we'll just have to wait and see.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Oregon vs. Georgia (-17) in Atlanta—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oregon Georgia
Proj. F+ 24 2
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 13 1
2021 F+ 16 1
2021 EPA/pass 60 1
2021 EPA/rush 6 8
When Georgia has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 34 3
2021 F+ 57 3
2021 EPA/pass 58 4
2021 EPA/rush 49 73

No matter what happens next, it'll be hard to look on Kirby Smart's tenure at Georgia as a letdown. The Bulldogs pieced together a dominant regular season and rebounded masterfully after a blowout loss to Alabama that could have killed their momentum. For the first time in over four decades, they're the defending national champions, and that's an accomplishment that makes any subsequent setbacks a lot easier to bear. But while reaching the summit is an achievement worthy of praise, so is staying at the top, and that's the task Georgia will set about this season. Oddsmakers and metrics alike consider the Bulldogs a comfortable favorite in the first test of their championship defense, but even assuming they win comfortably, how they do it could provide valuable insight into how far they can go in 2022.

Georgia's opponent in their opener, Oregon, pulled an upset of about this caliber early last season, going into Ohio State and stunning the No. 3 Buckeyes in Week 2 to soar into the early CFP discussion. But an inexplicable upset at the hands of Stanford (who promptly went on a seven-game losing streak to finish 3-9), along with two crushing losses to Utah, firmly dashed Oregon's title hopes. Head coach Mario Cristobal departed to Miami not long afterwards, providing the Ducks an opportunity to recalibrate without needing to rebuild.

Reloading amid contention is a familiar situation for this team—including Cristobal, their last six coaches have gone out with records of 10-3, 7-5, 4-8, 12-1, 10-3, and 9-3. The man taking the reins this time is eminently familiar with the structure of the elite Georgia defense he'll be facing, though its roster construction has shifted dramatically after losing a record five players in the first round of the NFL Draft alone. Dan Lanning coordinated the Bulldogs unit to a minuscule 10.2 points allowed per game last year, including just 83 total points surrendered in the regular season; with Cristobal out, the Ducks plucked him from the reigning champs to serve as their head coach, and his tenure in Eugene begins with a matchup against his former team. How much his knowledge of Georgia's 2021 defense will help him in this 2022 matchup, though, is unclear—the Bulldogs are replacing starters at nearly every position, after all. Players such as Robert Beal, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last year, and Kelee Ringo, who broke up eight passes and intercepted two, will anchor the group, but few other faces will be familiar.

In two games last year against Alabama (which scored the two highest totals of the season against the Georgia defense with 41 and 18 points), we glimpsed two ways that the Bulldogs could go now that their offense will likely have to take a major role. In the SEC Championship Game, the Bulldogs' inability to keep up with Alabama stemmed from an up-and-down performance from Stetson Bennett: a respectable 340 yards on 48 attempts, but two interceptions to three touchdowns. Add a dreadful rushing performance in which no Georgia player cracked 40 yards and the Bulldogs were doomed unless their defense could keep Alabama in check, which it failed to. But the rematch in the National Championship Game was another story as Bennett passed for 224 yards and two touchdowns on 26 passes and lost only one controversial fumble, while Zamir White and James Cook combined for 161 rushing yards and 8.5 yards per carry in the win.

In the worst-case scenario, it's not so hard to see a few games along the lines of the former meeting. Bennett has consistently struggled in his career when playing from behind and trying to carry the offense on his shoulders, and while the defense and rushing corps rarely put him in that situation last year, that may not be the case this season. While the defensive losses are obviously key, losing both White and Cook to the NFL could have an even bigger impact on the Bulldogs' season.

To avoid that outcome—and possibly to reach a best-case scenario where Bennett is comfortable, the offense works reliably, and the defense holds up its end of the bargain—the offense needs Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton to step up as the new lead backs. Neither has shown the explosiveness of Cook—whose production on carries of 15 or more yards accounted for nearly 40% of his total yardage—but McIntosh has evident promise as a big-play threat in the backfield and as a pass-catcher. They'll be critical to Georgia's offensive success all year, but they should have a favorable matchup against an Oregon defensive line that struggled last year and has now lost Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Bulldogs should win going away, but what that looks like will tell us a lot about how they'll pursue division, conference, and national titles in 2022.

Watch for:

  • Can Georgia's rushers make plays in the second level against a strong group of Oregon linebackers led by Noah Sewell?
  • How will the Ducks reload on offense with a new quarterback (Bo Nix) and top running back (Byron Caldwell or Mar'Keise Irving)?
  • Will the Bulldogs' completely overhauled pass rush get pressure against a strong Oregon offensive line?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 19.3

Cincinnati at Arkansas (-6.5)—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Cincinnati Arkansas
Proj. F+ 15 30
When Cincinnati has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 20 31
2021 F+ 18 22
2021 EPA/pass 46 43
2021 EPA/rush 8 26
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 15 30
2021 F+ 9 22
2021 EPA/pass 7 22
2021 EPA/rush 4 66

Unlike some Week 0 games, there's no big narrative hanging on the outcome of Cincinnati-Arkansas. Neither team is looking for a critical jumpstart, like in Florida State-LSU; nor is one team looking to make a statement as a leader in the championship hunt, as in Oregon-Georgia and Notre Dame-Ohio State. It's simply a matchup between two of the best teams in the sport, though that would come as a surprise to any fan from a few years ago.

Ole Miss has earned the most attention as an SEC West team that emerged from several losing seasons and returned to the top 25 last year, but Arkansas did much the same. While the Razorbacks didn't reach the same heights as the Rebels (making the Outback Bowl rather than the Sugar), their rebuild is arguably more impressive because of where it started—Sam Pittman took over following back-to-back 2-10 seasons under Chad Morris and led Arkansas to a 9-4 record in just his second year.

The Razorbacks' opponent, Cincinnati, has been at the top for longer, finishing ranked in four straight seasons, but they went 4-8 as recently as 2017. In addition to orchestrating another rapid rebound, Luke Fickell has also taken the Bearcats to new heights in the last two years: after going 22-5 in 2018 and 2019, they went a remarkable 22-2 in 2020 and 2021. Last season, they became the first team from outside the Power 5 to reach the playoff, and they should remain the class of the AAC in their last year before they join the Big 12. Neither team's season would change trajectory significantly with a loss in this game, which is unusual for a marquee matchup in Week 1. Nevertheless, a win would be a nice feather in their cap for two programs looking to make further waves in 2022.

Arkansas has experienced leaders on defense despite some losses—Bumper Pool should anchor the linebackers, and the secondary adds some strong transfers to join Simeon Blair and Myles Slusher. Their biggest changes are on the offense instead, despite the return of emergent star KJ Jefferson. A clear threat as both a passer (9.1 yards per pass) and rusher (4.5 yards per carry), Jefferson is a great piece to build around, but the Razorbacks have work to do around him.

Treylon Burks led the team with 88 targets and 65 receptions—no other receiver on the team came close to even half of either total—and losing him and secondary target Tyson Morris demands a full-scale recalibration at receiver. Additions such as Matt Landers, (25.7 yards per catch at Toledo) and Jadon Haselwood (a quality piece in Oklahoma's offenses in 2019 and 2021) will help the Razorbacks reload, but they're going to need a lot from Jefferson to match last year's passing performance. Adding to those concerns is a running back situation in considerable flux: Arkansas' top three backs all posted between 575 and 600 rushing yards last year, but Trelon Smith has transferred and Dominique Johnson is still recovering from a bowl injury, leaving Raheim Sanders (578 yards) to carry the weight for at least Week 1.

Cincinnati's defense was a strength last year, holding every opponent—Alabama's all-star offense included—to 28 points or fewer and ranking second nationally in yards allowed per pass. But most of that production is gone: Myjai Sanders and Curtis Brooks on the line; Joel Dublanko and Darrian Beavers at linebacker; Sauce Gardner, Bryan Cook, and Coby Bryant at defensive back. In spite of those losses, however, there are still plenty of talented players on the unit. The line returns three players with four or more tackles for loss last year, and Ivan Pace Jr. steps in at linebacker after putting up 125 tackles for Miami-Ohio, reuniting with his brother Deshawn (95 tackles, four interceptions). The secondary is perhaps the most impressive unit; despite losing players drafted in the first, second, and fourth rounds, it still has two of the best defenders in the AAC. Arquon Bush allowed only 10.7 yards per catch despite being targeted 74 times (fourth in the conference), and Ja'Von Hicks has totaled seven interceptions in his last two full seasons. There's still work to be done, but the Bearcats should provide a strong defense against Arkansas' standout passing attack.

Watch for:

  • How much will Arkansas lean on its run game against Cincinnati's talented pass defense?
  • On the other side of the ball, what will the Bearcats' offensive balance look like with new leaders at quarterback and running back?
  • Will Ben Bryant (7.6 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, seven interceptions at Eastern Michigan) or former four-star Evan Prater lead Cincinnati's offense?

FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 6.4

Houston (-4.5) at UTSA—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

Overall Houston UTSA
Proj. F+ 39 67
When Houston has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 45 87
2021 F+ 58 75
2021 EPA/pass 37 77
2021 EPA/rush 84 36
When UTSA has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 45 49
2021 F+ 21 32
2021 EPA/pass 12 12
2021 EPA/rush 11 56

As with Cincinnati and Arkansas, the fact that this game is one of the best matchups of Week 1 would have sounded laughable not so long ago. Just three years before this game, UTSA went 4-8 and fired Frank Wilson, while Houston hired Dana Holgorsen and collapsed to 4-8 as well. Yet in 2021, both teams went 12-2 and ran off 11-game winning streaks in the regular season, positioning this as an unexpected battle among Group of 5 titans.

Houston's offense earned plenty of accolades, with Clayton Tune not just coming into his own as a solid starter but emerging as one of the best passers in the AAC. The Cougars were also led by the breakouts of underclassmen Nathaniel Dell, whose 1,329 receiving yards led the conference, and Alton McCaskill, whose 16 rushing touchdowns were the most by a freshman in AAC history. (All three return in 2022, though McCaskill is out for the season due to an ACL tear.) But it was the defense that took an even bigger step forward in 2021, having given up 32.0 points per game the previous year but dropping that total to 20.4 last season. It's on that side of the ball that Houston has the biggest questions, too, as key pieces such as Logan Hall (13 tackles for loss) and Marcus Jones (13 pass breakups, five interceptions) must be replaced.

UTSA's offense might be even more stacked than Houston's, although it does lose one key contributor. Barry Lunney Jr., the Roadrunners' offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, is off to Illinois, and replacing him is no easy task. UTSA ranked 117th in points per game and scored over 30 points just twice the year before Lunney came to town; last year, he led them to the 12th-most points per game and orchestrated nine 30-point performances. Matt Mattox, his replacement, did an excellent job in his last role as an offensive coordinator, but that was at Tulsa way back in 2015; there's reason to worry about the switch.

On the upside, there's plenty of continuity in the unit Mattox will oversee this year. Frank Harris, much like Tune, took a huge step up in 2021, and the starting trio that defined that surge—Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and De'Corian Clark, 750-yard receivers all—is back along with him. There is a shakeup at running back, where Sincere McCormick went pro after posting the fourth-most total yards in FBS, but head coach Jeff Traylor swung Trelon Smith from Arkansas, where Smith put up 1,488 yards in two seasons. Coaching changes aside, the Roadrunners have a bevy of talent to throw at Houston on offense.

With the biggest personnel concerns for both teams lying at running back—where Houston needs to break in new starter Ta'Zhawn Henry (524 yards) and UTSA is shifting from McCormick to Smith—it's reasonable to expect an emphasis on passing from both teams. The quarterback battle is dead-even when it comes to deep passing, as both Tune and Harris tossed 12 touchdowns of at least 20 yards last year (a mark reached by only nine other quarterbacks in the Group of 5). So which team can provide the most resistance in the secondary?

Houston's defensive backfield loses its two clear leaders in targets faced: the aforementioned Jones, who was targeted 75 times, and Damarion Williams, who was targeted 56 times. Together, they accounted for nearly 35% of all opponents' passes, and they racked up 20 pass breakups, six interceptions, and a mere 50.4% completion rate. However, Alex Hogan and Art Green, projected to take over from Jones and Williams at corner, allowed an even lower completion rate (48.4%). On about half as many targets, they totaled about half as many pass breakups and picks, so there may not be a huge drop-off. Perhaps the most important element for everything to click: nickel Jayce Rogers, who allowed a 64.9% completion rate and 3.2 yards after catch per reception. Having the talent to cover the outside is key for Houston, but with so many options for UTSA through the air, they'll need to lock down the middle of the field as well.

UTSA's pass defense will also look very different from last year, but instead of promoting backups, the Roadrunners opted to add through the portal. Defensive backs from four different Power 5 teams arrived in the offseason—though there are also some valuable returns from last season in Rashad Wisdom (226 career tackles) and Corey Mayfield Jr. (0.0 yards after catch per reception allowed on 44 targets). Can the secondary come together and keep the Cougars' elite quarterback-receiver pairing in check? For the Roadrunners to pull an upset in a huge in-state showdown, it'll need to.

Watch for:

  • How much will the Cougars and Roadrunners lean on running backs being pressed into unfamiliar workhorse roles?
  • Can tight end Christian Trahan—Houston's top returning pass-catcher beyond Dell—provide a significant threat and expand the Cougars' options through the air?
  • Can the young left side of Houston's offensive line, manned by sophomores Patrick Paul and Cam'Ron Johnson, hold off a dangerous UTSA pass rush?

FEI Outright Pick: Houston by 8.4

Utah (-3) at Florida—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Utah Florida
Proj. F+ 10 23
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 7 26
2021 F+ 11 30
2021 EPA/pass 59 19
2021 EPA/rush 1 78
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 21 27
2021 F+ 20 39
2021 EPA/pass 26 56
2021 EPA/rush 53 77

Utah started 1-2 last year, losing to BYU and San Diego State, but went on a 9-2 tear and won the Pac-12. That season trajectory is familiar for the Utes: they started 0-2 and finished 3-0 in 2020, and started 2-2 and finished 7-3 back in 2018. The recent exception to this rule is also the best model for what the Utes hope to do this year—the 2019 season, in which they started 11-1 and chased a playoff spot all the way to championship week. That year, Utah came up just short, but on paper, this team is even better than the one led by Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, and Devin Lloyd.

If the Utes are to make a legitimate run—and they can, given the talent of their roster and some of their top Pac-12 rivals rebuilding under new coaches—they need to avoid a stumble out of the gate. Facing San Diego State again in Week 3 and visiting Arizona State in Week 4 will be valuable tests, but the biggest game in September is the opener. Utah's visit to Florida will be their first away game against an SEC team since 1984, and it'll take place in one of the most daunting road environments in college sports: the Gators haven't lost by more than three points at home since 2018.

On the other hand, this game shouldn't be that close on paper. Utah finished last season as one of the best teams in the sport, nearly upsetting a fantastic Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and going 10-4 overall despite the slow start. Meanwhile, Florida crashed and burned down the stretch, an early 4-2 record dissolving into a 6-7 finish in which they lost to South Carolina by 23, gave up 52 to Samford, and fired Dan Mullen after a dispiriting bowl loss to UCF. The Gators will recover and return to the forefront of the SEC in time, but the data on first-season coaches—even those as good as Billy Napier—indicates it will take at least a year or two.

For the Gators to get an edge, the offense will need to lead the way. While starting quarterback Emory Jones transferred out, Anthony Richardson has inspired confidence as a more-than-capable replacement. While his six touchdowns to five interceptions last year are cause for concern, he showed a decent arm (59.4% completion rate, 8.3 yards per pass) and was an adept rusher, totallng 401 yards on just 51 carries. The unit around him is substantially overhauled too, losing running backs Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis, as well as pass-catchers Jacob Copeland and Kemore Gamble—two pairs of players who each combined for over a thousand yards. Napier turned to the portal to replenish the skill corps, pairing ULL transfer Montrell Johnson with Nayquan Wright at running back and Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall with Justin Shorter at receiver. It should all come together to form a solid offense, but keeping up with Utah is a tall task in the group's first game together.

Utah has every reason to be confident on offense: they averaged 36 points per game last year, and most of the core elements of that group return. Cameron Rising is the biggest reason to believe the Utes can avoid early struggles, as he took the offensive reins against San Diego State and led the team's late run with 20 passing touchdowns and only five interceptions. Rusher Tavion Thomas racked up 21 touchdowns, second-most among all returning skill players in the Power 5, and Micah Bernard offers a dual rushing/receiving threat to complement his skills. With Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, both tight ends who totaled over 500 yards last year, the Utes have a heavy-hitting attack that should have a huge physical advantage against Florida's young defensive line.

The main threat to the Utes is the possibility that the Gators can match them blow-for-blow when they have the ball. Devin Lloyd's 111 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, and four interceptions made him one of the most versatile players in all of football last year, and the Utah linebacker corps has to address both his loss and that of 89-tackle star Nephi Sewell. As expected of a playoff dark horse, though, there are still plenty of great players on this unit, such as lockdown corner Clark Phillips III and flexible sophomore safety Cole Bishop. There are certainly defensive holes that Florida can go after with their variety of offensive options, though, and Utah will need to address their struggles with completing tackles last year to contain the Gators' explosiveness.

Watch for:

  • Can Florida open gaps in the line and abuse the mismatch between Johnson and Wright and the Utes' inexperienced linebackers?
  • Will Utah be able to pressure Richardson and force the Gators to rely on his ability as a scrambler?
  • How well will Florida corners Jason Marshall Jr. and Avery Helm match up with the Utes' tight ends and receivers?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 5.1

Notre Dame at Ohio State (-17)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame Ohio State
Proj. F+ 6 3
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 11 14
2021 F+ 20 31
2021 EPA/pass 49 64
2021 EPA/rush 78 23
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 8 1
2021 F+ 15 1
2021 EPA/pass 2 2
2021 EPA/rush 44 14

Can anyone stop CJ Stroud? It didn't happen in 2021: in perhaps his worst game of the season, the freshman quarterback passed for 405 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions against Nebraska. Overall, he led the Big Ten in completion percentage, passing yards, yards per pass, passing touchdowns, and efficiency rating, handily earning offensive player of the year honors in his first season as a starter.

Few defenses have the depth of talent necessary to keep up with Stroud and Ohio State's all-star receiving corps—a lineup that, while not the same as last year's daunting trio that featured Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, is still superb. Jaxon Smith-Njigba led the Power 5 in receiving yards last season and made his name on the national stage with a staggering Rose Bowl performance (347 yards, three touchdowns). Marvin Harrison Jr. averaged 12.6 yards per catch on 11 receptions, and Emeka Egbuka averaged 21.2 yards per catch and 29.0 yards per kick return. It's hard to see the passing attack stepping back much, even with the losses of the 10th and 11th draft picks.

If you had to pick one defense to pit against the Buckeyes through the air, you wouldn't go wrong with Georgia or Alabama, both units with numerous former blue-chip recruits and current college standouts. But there's a case to be made that no team has a better chance at keeping Stroud within arm's reach than Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish ranked second nationally in EPA allowed per pass last season, combining an imposing edge rush with a strong secondary and a linebacker corps that played plenty of coverage. That emphasis on pass defense did lead to struggles against the run—and with TreVeyon Henderson in the Buckeyes' backfield, the Irish can't afford to ignore the ground game outright—but they present a defensive challenge that Ohio State hasn't really faced with Stroud under center.

The defensive line has to be physical to match up well with the Buckeyes, whose offensive line is loaded with standouts such as Paris Johnson, Luke Wypler, and Dawand Jones. Notre Dame's defensive front was exceptional last year, though, and its top three players are all back. Isaiah Foskey led the team with 11 sacks, tied for eighth in the Power 5, and twins Justin and Jayson Ademilola both posted at least four. The Irish already ranked 33rd in sack rate last year, and returning all of their top contributors bodes well for an even better performance in 2022.

A defense built to stop the pass needs plenty of able players in coverage, and while Notre Dame's returns at the position aren't quite as superb, they do bring back some great pieces. Among 101 Power 5 players with at least 400 snaps in coverage, corner Cam Hart was one of just 12 to allow a completion rate under 50%. The Irish also added a top transfer to replace first-round pick Kyle Hamilton at safety: Brandon Joseph, who intercepted three passes at Northwestern. The defensive backs are a great group, but the linebackers make this pass defense truly outstanding. Hart led the team with seven pass breakups, but tied for second were Bo Bauer and Jack Kiser, despite neither playing in the secondary. That's not to mention JD Bertrand, who covered 43 targets for the Irish, tied for 13th in the Power 5.

Put all of that together, and it's clear the Irish have one of the best defenses against the pass in all of college football. Most of the top players from a superb unit are back, and the Irish have added one of the top defensive backs in the game to replace one of their few losses. Will that be enough to keep Stroud under wraps and give Notre Dame a serious chance to win? That's less clear, but this is easily the biggest threat he has faced in FBS. With an extremely deep offense that ran roughshod in nearly every game last year, Ohio State is understandably a comfortable favorite, and they won't overlook the Irish in the biggest game of Week 1. But Notre Dame has the elite players to compete with the Buckeyes, and while pulling off an upset won't be easy, they shouldn't be counted out.

Watch for:

  • Can the Ademilola twins hold the line against Henderson and force Ohio State to rely on the pass?
  • Is Tyler Buchner ready to lead the Irish on offense, especially with standing questions at receiver?
  • Will the Buckeyes' solid run defense hold off an inexperienced Irish run game led by Chris Tyree (222 rushing yards, 258 receiving yards)?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 7.5

Florida State vs. LSU (-3.5) in New Orleans—Sunday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Florida State LSU
Proj. F+ 43 17
When Florida State has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F+ 56 22
2021 F+ 57 50
2021 EPA/pass 80 100
2021 EPA/rush 39 50
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F+ 35 19
2021 F+ 39 64
2021 EPA/pass 73 43
2021 EPA/rush 41 88

It's easy to assume that Brian Kelly doesn't have a lot of work to do at LSU. Three coaches have led the Tigers this century, and all of them—Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Ed Orgeron—have won a national title. But meeting with Florida State offers a look in the mirror, one of many ways things could go in Baton Rouge under Kelly's watch. Not so long ago, the Seminoles had an even longer run of success, spread across the tenures of Bobby Bowden (1976-2009) and Jimbo Fisher (2010-2017). Following Fisher's final year, they were the surest thing in college football, having reached an NCAA-record 36 straight bowl games.

They have only bowled one time since. Willie Taggart went 9-12 and was dismissed before the end of his second season; Mike Norvell, entering his third season with the Seminoles, is 9-13 and has just one win by more than 10 points in 16 conference games. Whether something this dire could happen at LSU is a matter of debate, but Florida State serves as a cautionary tale about assuming 6-6 is the floor.

On the other hand, the end of Florida State's story isn't written yet. Norvell has kept his job not only because of the blow to recruiting that another two-year tenure might do, but also because his team sputtered to life after a dismal 0-4 start last year. From October 2021 on, the Seminoles are 6-3; it's no return to glory just yet, but they're at least beating the teams they should beat. That includes opponents such as Duquesne, a similar level of FCS opponent to the team that upset them last year, Jacksonville State. The Seminoles rolled the Dukes 47-7 in Week 0, gaining 638 total yards behind flawless performances from quarterback Jordan Travis and rushers Treshaun Ward, Trey Benson, and Lawrance Toafili. Such a showing against a vastly inferior opponent (although still a quality program in FCS) is quite unremarkable, which is what makes it so remarkable for a team whose struggles in easily winnable games are well documented.

Consider it a final exam of sorts for the first phase of Florida State's rebuild. It's clear they can take care of business; now it's time to take the next step and start picking up more eye-catching wins. Upsetting ranked rival Miami with a late comeback last season was a good start, and this meeting with LSU—uncontested for viewership in prime time, against a faltering titan of the SEC, led by a coach that the Seminoles nearly stunned last year—is another key opportunity. There's little doubt that both teams involved have a lot on the line, both seeking to maintain forward momentum and avert a relapse into crisis.

For the Seminoles, everything starts with Travis under center. The running backs are obviously talented—you don't have three players go for over 100 yards and 7.5 yards per carry by accident, even against Duquesne—but the LSU front seven is equipped to deal with them. BJ Ojulari attempted 35 tackles last year and made 34, a minuscule 2.9% missed-tackle rate that led all SEC edge rushers with that many attempts. Neil Farrell Jr., the other key element of last year's line, has gone pro, but Ali Gaye has emerged as a player whom the Tigers believe can step up and fill a similar role. LSU will also bring plenty of pressure to a Seminoles offensive line that needs a big step up from last season—Travis was pressured on 39.9% of dropbacks last year, eighth-most among quarterbacks who were pressured at least 100 times.

Be that as it may, Travis will get his share of clean passes, and the LSU secondary may be at a disadvantage when he does get throws off. The Seminoles already had plenty of depth returning from last season, but they added more talent to the unit through the portal with 688-yard West Virginia transfer Winston Wright the biggest impact. Travis passed for 207 yards on just 15 attempts last week—and that was without Wright or either of the top two returning pass-catchers from last year logging a single reception. With those top receivers, Ontaria Wilson and Keyshawn Helton, both expected to play on Sunday, and Wright also approaching an early return from injury, the quality of an already-great passing game could take another step up.

The Tigers' defensive backfield isn't necessarily facing a massive mismatch, considering the baseline of quality in any given LSU secondary, but it remains to be seen how their top players will fit together. Brian Kelly also pulled in a significant transfer class, and two of the top players joining the Tigers are defensive backs Jerrick Bernard (from Oklahoma State) and Joe Foucha (from Arkansas). Add that to a secondary led by Jay Ward (five interceptions and 13 pass breakups in the last two seasons) and there's undeniable talent, but it's hard to say just what it'll look like until LSU takes on the test of the Seminoles' dynamic receiving corps. In a matchup of teams looking to leave the recent past behind them, new faces like these may make all the difference.

Watch for:

  • Who will LSU trot out as their starting quarterback: Jayden Daniels, who showed promise at Arizona State, or former four-star Garrett Nussmeier?
  • Can Kayshon Boutte pick up where he left off last year—with 85 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game—before an injury cut his season short?
  • How will the Seminoles reload after losing Jermaine Johnson and Keir Thomas, who combined for more than half of the defensive line's sacks?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 8.9

FEI Picks: Week 1

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Preston's
Pick ATS
Georgia -17 Oregon Georgia Georgia Georgia
at Arkansas -6.5 Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati
Houston -4.5 at UTSA Houston Houston Houston
Utah -3 at Florida Utah Utah Utah
at Ohio State -17 Notre Dame Ohio State Notre Dame Notre Dame
LSU -3.5 Florida State LSU LSU Florida State

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 55-66-1

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 61-60-1

Comments

3 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2022, 5:16pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 02, 2022 - 10:26am

Bennett has consistently struggled in his career when playing from behind and trying to carry the offense on his shoulders, and while the defense and rushing corps rarely put him in that situation last year, that may not be the case this season.

He's struggled -- relatively -- in three games against top-10 teams who lit his defense up for 500 yards or more -- Florida once and Alabama twice. 

He's also played well from behind against highly-rated teams, like Tennessee and Alabama. 

Stroud and Young have struggled in games where their team doesn't simply overwhelm the opponent, too.

 

I wonder if obsessing over ND's defense is missing the point. Ohio State will move the ball. In their worst offensive game in three years they scored 24 points and had 340 yards against a great defense. Where they have glitched, it's been on defense. The question is, can ND bully OSU around enough to put Ohio State in a hole and keep them there? Because that's how Alabama, Oregon, Michigan, Clemson, and Utah gave Ohio State fits.

(All those teams had good to great defenses too, but it didn't matter. They had to outscore Ohio State.)

It's possible to drag them into a rock fight, but even in those, Northwestern and Nebraska were giving up 500 yards a game and hoping to hold Ohio State to field goals and turnovers. That's a tough way to beat them. You could do it in the Urban Meyer era (MSU did this to them regularly), but it hasn't worked in the Ryan Day era.

Points: 0

#2 by Pat // Sep 04, 2022 - 10:41am

God, Ohio State by 17 was one of the dopiest lines I've ever seen. There's no way that was ever going to be that large: that game was always going to be short. I knew as soon as OSU hit a two score lead they'd be in "just end the game" mode.

Played out pretty close to expectations, too.

Points: 0

#3 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 04, 2022 - 12:41pm

3:42 left and you're down 11 and you PUNT? Pathetic.

Also Jim Leonhard is fantastic at his job. 

Points: 0

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