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Games of the Year, Part I

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Game of the Year Odds
Part II - Part III

Originally published on June 20.

As is its custom this time of year, The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas has released early numbers for college football’s Games of the Year stretching from Week 1 until the final weekend of the regular season.

On that note, let’s start with Week 1 that has games from Thursday through Monday. South Carolina will play host to Conference USA power Southern Miss at Williams Brice Stadium on Thursday night. The Nugget has opened the Gamecocks as 14-point favorites.

This is a pivotal year for Steve Spurrier, who probably has his best shot at winning the SEC East with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee breaking in new starting quarterbacks. Fourth-year junior QB Stephen Garcia will be the key. He needs to stay healthy for 12 games and perform at an All-SEC level.

But Garcia needs help. Most importantly, the Gamecocks need to get decent offensive line play for the first time in several years. Spurrier’s offense needs to have an effective running game in order for his play-action plays to function at a high level. To the rescue, perhaps, could be Palmetto State product Marcus Lattimore, a five-star RB who could start right away as a true freshman.

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Also on Thursday, Utah will play host to Pitt as a 3 ½-point favorite. The Utes, who are coming off a 10-3 campaign, return eight starters on offense but just four on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers, who also finished 10-3 in 2009, bring back five starters on offense and six on defense.

Remember, in Urban Meyer’s last game as coach at Utah, the Utes beat Pitt down by a 35-7 count in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. That’s the only previous head-to-head meeting between these programs.

On Saturday of Week 1, North Carolina and LSU will take over the Georgia Dome. The past two years, Alabama has beaten Clemson and Va. Tech in Atlanta in SEC-ACC clashes. The Crimson Tide destroyed the Tigers 34-10 as a 4 ½-point underdog in 2008, and also took the cash in a 34-24 win over the Hokies as a 6 ½-point ‘chalk.’

The Nugget has made the Tar Heels the three-point favorites. They might have the most impressive numbers in terms of returning starters, bringing back 10 on offense and nine on ‘D.’ Nevertheless, I still feel like LSU has better overall talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when September rolls around, we’re looking at a pick ‘em or perhaps the Tigers as the short favorites.

With that said, I give UNC a huge head coaching advantage with Butch Davis matching wits with Les ‘The Mad Hatter’ Miles. Speaking of ‘The Hat,’ it should be interesting to watch what goes down from Ann Arbor to Baton Rouge this season.

We know Rich Rodriguez is on a boiling hot seat and, to a lesser extent, Miles is on somewhat shaky terms, especially when thinking about his debacle of a coaching performance in last year’s inexplicable loss at Ole Miss. (To be clear, that’s not a shot at the Rebels. The loss was inexplicable only in terms of the kindergarten-like clock-management decisions made by Miles.)

The question is this: Are the Wolverines still as bullish on Miles, an alumnus who played and coached under the ultimate Michigan Man, as they were in 2007? The answer is probably no, but I still don’t know that that’ll prevent Michigan from pursuing Miles, especially after all the turmoil under R-Rod, a ‘stranger’ to the Michigan way.

Another interesting Week 1 matchup will be at Papa John’s Stadium, where Charlie Strong and Joker Phillips will make their head-coaching debuts (I discount Strong’s one-game stretch as Ron Zook’s interim replacement at Florida). The Golden Nugget has Kentucky as a seven-point road favorite at Louisville.

As if Oregon St. doesn’t have enough competition on its Pac-10 slate, the Beavers aren’t afraid to take on the nation’s premier ‘mid-majors.’ In fact, Mike Riley and Co. will go on the road to face TCU and Boise St. this season. In Week 1, the Horned Frogs have been tabbed as 10 ½-point favorites vs. Oregon St. at Cowboys Stadium.

Finally, on Monday at FedEx Field in Washington D.C., Virginia Tech and Boise St. will square off in what is a must-win for the Broncos, who return every key player from last year’s 14-0 squad with the exception of second-team All-American cornerback Kyle Wilson. The Nugget opened Chris Petersen’s squad as a 2 ½-point favorite.

The oddsmakers are obviously showing Boise St. a bunch of respect here, especially when considering the cross-country trip. Frank Beamer’s team has eight starters coming back on offense, including veteran QB Tyrod Taylor and two of the country’s best RBs in Ryan Williams and Darren Evans.

Before Evans tore his ACL last August, he ran for 1,265 yards and earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2008. All Williams did last season was rush for 1,655 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

Week 2 begins on Thursday in Starkville, where Mississippi St. will host Auburn in the SEC opener for both schools. The Tigers are seven-point road favorites. If this line remains the same, maybe gamblers should look at the Bulldogs as home underdogs? I say that because I love to fade a team that has a quarterback making his first career road start. That’ll be the case for Cam Newton, Auburn’s juco transfer QB who started his career at Florida before getting booted from the program.

Week 2 features a slew of intriguing non-conference games like FSU at Oklahoma (-10), Miami at Ohio St. (-8), South Florida at Florida (-18), Penn St. at Alabama (-9.5), Oregon (-3) at Tennessee, Michigan at Notre Dame (-7) and Ga. Tech (-7) at Kansas.

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The Bulls and the Gators will be colliding for the first time, while PSU and ‘Bama haven’t met in 20 years. The Seminoles haven’t faced the Sooners since OU beat FSU 13-2 for the national title in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Likewise, the ‘Canes haven’t played the Buckeyes since Ohio St. beat UM in double overtime for the 2002 BCS championship.

As usual, Florida and Tennessee will steal the spotlight in Week 3. The Gators are nine-point favorites for their trip to Neyland Stadium (AKA: Swamp North). UF has beaten UT five straight times and 18 of the last 24.

Other Week 3 games include Ga. Tech at UNC (-4.5), BYU at FSU (-7), Nebraska (-4.5) at Washington and Texas (-7) at Texas Tech.

For the Thursday night game of Week 4, Pitt will play host to former Big East rival Miami as a one-point home favorite at Heinz Field. Both schools will have an open date the prior week.

Arkansas is getting a bunch of respect from The Nugget with its numbers. For example, the Crimson Tide is only favored by 3 ½ for its trip to Fayetteville on Sep. 25. Staying with the Razorbacks, they have 10 starters returning on offense and seven on defense.

Ryan Mallett, who threw for 3,624 yards with a 30/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2009, is a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate. The transfer from Michigan has all of his skill players back, so Bobby Petrino’s offense should be a high-functioning machine. However, the defense has to rapidly improve if the Hogs are going to be any sort of factor in the SEC West.

South Carolina will play a crucial road game in Week 4 when it invades the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Auburn has been tabbed as a 3 ½-point home favorite vs. the Gamecocks. These schools haven’t met since a memorable Thursday game in 2006 when second-ranked Auburn escaped Columbia with a 24-17 victory as a 13 ½-point favorite.

Boise St. hasn’t tasted defeat on the smurf turf in the regular season since 2001. The Broncos have never lost at home on Chris Petersen’s watch. They are 14-point favorites for their Week 4 showdown vs. Oregon St., which lost 42-14 in its last venture to Bronco Stadium in 2006.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--More Week 4 numbers: West Va. at LSU (-6), California at Arizona (-4), Va. Tech (-2.5) at Boston College and Oklahoma (-10) at Cincinnati.

--I was a guest on The Paul Finebaum Show discussing these Games of the Year on Friday. You can listen to the clip from Hour 1 on 6/18/10 by going to this page. Congrats to Paul, whose show is now on XM channel 143 from 2:00-6:00 Central.

--No Clemson lines were released due to the uncertain status of QB Kyle Parker, who was recently taken in the MLB Draft and is believed to be considering all his options at this point.

--Like Clemson, there are no lines for USC games. The reasoning for this is potential transfers. Remember, the NCAA ruled that all juniors and seniors can leave the Trojans for another school without being forced to sit out a season.

--Spurrier recently made these remarks about John Brantley replacing Tim Tebow at UF: "Doug Johnson tried to replace Danny Wuerffel (in 1997). Doug was out playing minor league baseball and drinking beer all summer. Doug is a bright young man now, but back then, that was his summer prior to starting. He couldn't even run the 12-minute run when he showed up. He wasn't very well prepared. We did a poor job of giving him a summer plan. Johnny Brantley has been around there for three years. He should be ready to go." We should note, however, to D.J's credit, he completely outplayed Peyton Manning in UF's 33-21 win over Tennessee during Manning's senior season, sealing his fate as an 0-for-LIFER against the Gators. Johnson also made the big plays in leading Florida to a thrilling 32-29 upset win over previously unbeaten and top-ranked FSU in the most thrilling game ever played at The Swamp. Both of those games were played in 1997, Johnson's first year as a starter.

Brian Edwards can be reached at briane@vegasinsider.com.

For daily sports gambling analysis, follow Brian Edwards on twitter at Vegasbedwards.

  
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