by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The College football season is now within sight with "Week Zero" action commencing at the end of August before the first full weekend of action beginning Sepember 2.  In preparation for the festivities, we're intrigued by a handful of season-win prop recommendations that we list below...  

AIR FORCE OVER 6.5 wins… Underestimate Falcons HC Troy Calhoun at your own risk! With the exception of 2013, when injuries decimated his roster, Calhoun’s teams with the Force have usually punched above their weight. Including a year ago when splitting six games despite almost the entirety of the projected defense opting out (“turnbacks” in academy parlance as opposed to “redshirts”). Several starters from the 2019 stop unit thus resurface to compete with many who stepped into their roles a year ago, with the result likely a highly-combative D. That’s usually been the ingredient to the most-successful Calhoun teams, as longtime o.c. Mike Thiessen is usually able to cobble together a functional option-based attack that led the nation in rushing a year ago. Starters must be replaced en masse along the OL, but reloading on the lines is standard operating procedure for the Falcs, and pilot Haazig Daniels flashed enough upside in his QB audition last fall to suggest this could be another dynamic Calhoun offense. The schedule presents many win opportunities, with the toughest non-league games vs. Commander-in-Chief foes Army and Navy, and many legit chances for Ws in the modest Mountain West. Getting above .500 and to another bowl is well within reach for the Force.

BAYLOR UNDER 5.5 wins... Though tempted to give then-new HC Dave Aranda a mulligan after last season’s oddities, which hit Baylor harder than most after an early-season Covid pause that never allowed the Waco bunch to get on track, our instincts say no. Not out of any avarice; rather, last year’s Bears never remotely resembled the Matt Rhule powerhouse of 2019, which really shouldn’t have surprised since much of the roster plus the coaching staff departed afterwards. Now Baylor moves forward minus multi-year starting QB Charlie Brewer, whose guile and savvy have transferred to Utah, leaving a mostly-untested collection of successors that include Jacob Zeno, who did briefly shine in relief during the 2019 Big 12 title game vs. Oklahoma but otherwise has little experience. Even with Brewer, the offense dropped into the triple-digits statistically a year ago, and it was hardly the same, hard-hitting defense that we saw at the end of the Rhule era, either. The truth is that the Bears are into a rebuild stage with Aranda, who still needs to establish his head-coaching chops. Our only cause for pause on the “under” is a chance the Bears break 3-0 from the gate with a forgiving early slate, but there’s a chance they might not be favored in any game thereafter.

GEORGIA UNDER 10.5 wins... People forget that Kirby Smart was forced to use three different QBs by midseason a year ago and that didn’t even include Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, the projected starter who opted out on the eve of the 2020 campaign Former USC transfer J.T. Daniels, recovering from knee surgery, finally was able to take over in the cockpit at midseason and twice passed for better than 300 yards in his last four starts. But it’s worth noting that no one blocked the door when Daniels wanted to leave SC, and late-season wins over three SEC also-rans padded the Daniels stats and the Georgia resume’ down the stretch before a late rally reversed what looked like was headed for a loss in he Sugar Bowl vs. Cincinnati. Smart’s stop units are usually formidable, and last season’s platoon topped the nation in rush defense, but Georgia was also shredded by the two best offenses it faced (Bama and Florida). The problem with a Georgia “over” recommendation is that a loss in the opener at Charlotte vs. Clemson leaves the Bulldogs no remaining margin for error if they want to get to 11 wins...we suspect they’re going to fall short.

GEORGIA TECH UNDER 4.5 wins... The transition from Paul Johnson’s unique option-oriented formula to the more-standard philosophy of Geoff Collins has been about as bumpy as many Tech fans were expecting. Now into his third season, however, Collins needs to begin showing some better results, as it is beginning to dawn upon many Tech backers that they really had something special for that decade with the clever Johnson. Never minding the changes to the Tech offense since 2018, but no team is going to win when it allows nearly 37 ppg as the Jackets did a year ago. The defense needs help after the platoon ranked last in the league in 2020's almost-full slate, and co-d.c.’s Nathan Burton and Andrew Thacker are going to count on the transfer portal to bring some needed new blood to the stop-end mix. Meanwhile, Tech doesn’t seem to have enough offense to make up for any defensive shortcomings, unless soph QB Jeff Sims, who flashed occasional upside last fall, demonstrates more consistency, and the offense stops being its worst enemy after a ghastly 25 giveaways ranked ahead of only Duke nationally. At the moment, not sure the Jackets will be favored over any foe other the Duke after the first two weeks vs. Northern Illinois and nearby Kennesaw State, and there are some regional observers who are warning about the FCS Owls and their option tactics (sound familiar, Tech fans?). Collins likely falls short of 4.5 wins and sets up a win-or-else scenario in 2022...if he lasts, that is.

MARYLAND UNDER 5.5 wins... The Terps are still awaiting their breakthrough under third-year HC Mike Locksley, who was able to rehab his career as an aide on Nick Saban’s Bama staff. Anyone with a longer memory, however, and familiar with Mountain West football knows this is the same Locksley who won two games in two years-plus at New Mexico over a decade ago in what still ranks as one of the all-time coaching demolition jobs of a program; Locksley couldn’t have tried to destroy the Lobos any better than he did. Perhaps he learned from his mistakes, but evidence of a breakthrough in College Park remains elusive. In his second year as a starting QB, it is hoped that jr. Taulia Tagovailoa (brother of you-know-who) begins to live up to the hype, but evidence was very mixed in last fall’s truncated slate when he tossed only 7 TDs to go along with 7 picks. Adding vet aide Dan Enos as the new o.c. might provide more direction, but the Locksley formula seems to be all aimed toward recruiting the best athletes and then molding something once on campus, which sounds better in theory than practice. Former NFL d.c. Brian Stewart takes control of the stop unit that could use some help after allowing 32 ppg in last fall’s limited slate. Though we don’t want to judge too much on 2020 developments, we remain highly skeptical of the Terps with Locksley at the helm, and a loss in the opener to West Virginia could set the tone in a slate that will get decidedly tougher once past September.

OLD DOMINION UNDER 3.5 wins... The last time we saw ODU on the gridiron, the Washington Nationals had just won the World Series and Covid was still months in the future. That would be November of 2019, before the Monarchs opted out of 2020 completely. Now, ODU is back, though the most-recent memory is of the 1-11 disaster two years ago that forced program architect and HC Bobby Wilder to resign. Former Penn State aide Ricky Rahne, cooling his jets since being hired 19 months ago, will likely try to employ the same no-huddle spread that worked so well for him as James Franklin’s o.c. in Happy Valley, but this time he’s not working with the Nittany Lions roster. Neither of his QBs who have seen past action for ODU, Stone Smartt or Hayden Wolff, have performed with much flair, though it is hoped that UCF transfer D.J. Mack, Jr. can infuse some spark. But when last seen, this was one of the nation’s worst offenses in 2019, so Rahne has his hands full. The defense wasn’t quite as helpless two autumns ago, and returns some of its top playmakers, but all ODU has done for a year-and-half is practice (two springs and a partial fall camp) and scrimmage against itself. After 1 win in 2019 and no football at all in 2020, getting to four wins should get Rahne some Coach of the Year consideration!

OLE MISS UNDER 7.5 wins... There’s a lot of hype in Oxford after the Outback Bowl win over Indiana, but in retrospect most of the damage Ole Miss did in Lane Kiffin’s debut campaign came against the bottom half of the SEC. We’re pumping the breaks just a bit because the Rebs leaked too much on defense last season and were only 4-5 vs. league foes. Anticipating many upgrades on the stop end looks a bit dubious with much of the same personnel (seven starters) on hand from a year ago, when the front seven wasn’t physical enough or fast enough to knock most foes off balance. Now, there is always the chance the Rebel attack can merely outscore foes, and QB Matt Corral effectively grasped the Kiffin schemes en route to 3337 pass yards and 29 TD passes a year ago, though the interceptions (14) were an issue. Kiffin is also reportedly figuring out ways to more use John Rhys Plumlee, who provided spark for the Rich Rodriguez offense at QB in 2019, as a sort of Swiss Army knife, able to be deployed in the slot, out wide, at running back, or a bit more as a change-of-pace QB this fall. Kiffin might have no choice but to find a way to get Plumlee more involved with the departure of star wideout Elijah Moore (86 catches in 2020). But with an average score of 39-38 last season, we might have to ask Ole Miss to win eight shootouts to cast an “over” vote. We suspect it’s more likely that the Rebs fall a bit short...but provide fun watching nonetheless.

RICE OVER 5.5 wins… Wait, are we back in 1957, when Jess Neely’s Owls were Cotton Bowl-bound and boasted of future NFL top draft pick King Hill at QB? No, it’s 2021, and for the first time in a while there is genuine excitement at Rice, where what once seemed a suicidal resolve to install a Stanford-type, power football offense by David Shaw disciple Mike Bloomgren is starting to pay dividends. The Owls impressed in their compressed 2020 slate, in position to win all five of their games, and return the bulk of their stop unit (8 starters) from the stingiest Rice platoon since the Neely era, ranking 12th nationally in scoring defense (Rice? Ranked 12th in scoring defense?). With depth on the OL and a big WR target in 6-5 Bradley Rozner (55 catches in 2019 before opting out in 2020), all Bloomgren needs is a QB, and the transfer market provided options with once-touted, ex-Nebraska Luke McCaffrey (Christian’s brother) and ex-Weber State Jake Constantine, who started 23 games for the Wildcats and already has 33 career TD passes. True, the schedule opens like an old Southwest Conference slate (Arkansas, Houston, Texas), but even if the Owls swallow the big donut vs. that trio, plenty of wins await in the watered-down C-USA, and there’s also crosstown FCS Texas Southern. Bloomgren can get Rice to a bowl and start to get mentioned as the heir apparent at Stanford whenever Shaw decides it’s time to move to the NFL.

TEXAS OVER 8 wins… For some reason it became almost obligatory for the sports analyst crowd to degrade the Longhorns in the Tom Herman era, and many are doing it again even as Steve Sarkisian takes control on the sidelines after a successful stint as Nick Saban’s o.c. with the title-winning Crimson Tide. “Sark” inherits a Texas program that was a handful of plays from playoff consideration a year ago, with narrow losses by 2, 3, and in OT (vs. Oklahoma). We also saw enough of soph QB Casey Thomspon in the blowout of Colorado in the Alamo Bowl to suggest he could be a worthy successor to four-year starter Sam Ehlinger, though there is also support in Austin for soph Hudson Card. Whichever QB takes snaps will spend time handing off to soph RB Bijan Robinson, perhaps the highest-touted back from the 2020 recruiting class and posed for a breakout after gaining 8.2 ypc last fall. An experienced secondary and plenty of potential within the front seven suggests the defense should at least be functional. Meanwhile, Sarkisian will embrace this second chance as a HC after the USC adventure went off of the rails a few years ago. Though we are a bit concerned that the pendign mvoe to the SEC is painting a bigger target on the Horns' backs, the combination of forging an immediate upgrade when aligning with Washignton a decade-plus ago, plus rehabbing his reputation under Saban, suggests Sarkisian should be able to cope with the Big 12 while it lasts.

ULM “OVER” 1.5 wins… After swallowing the big donut (0-10) last season that cost HC Matt Viator his job, it looks a bit risky to project a couple of wins from the Warhawks. Riskier, still, perhaps to entrust a recovery to none other than Terry Bowden, who has been laying low as the oldest grad assistant in the country on Dabo Swinney’s Clemson staff the past two years before resurfacing in Monroe, a risky assignment that might even make James Bond think twice after last year’s debacle. But before dismissing the chance Bowden can pull a couple of wins out of his hat, remember his debut year at Auburn in 1993, when he took a probation-saddled Tiger team to an 11-0 record. And seeing what happened at Akron after he left his most-recent head coaching assignment should generate further appreciation, as the Bowden Zips looked like Woody Hayes’ Ohio State compared to the post-Bowden Akron under Tom Arth. The late 1990s look of the staff is augmented by vet o.c. Rich Rodriguez, who has put potent offenses together at a variety of career stops (Tulane, West Virginia, and Arizona to name a few, the last two as HC; we won’t mention Rich-Rod’s Michigan misadventure), and has brought along his son Rhett, who passed for 578 yards in limited work at Arizona, to compete for the QB job. Bowden has already worked the transfer portal hard in an attempt to immediately upgrade the roster; beyond the younger Rodriguez, ex-Purdue Wr Jared Sparks and ex-USF TE Jacob Mathis are others could make an immediate impact. We expect ULM to beat Jackson State on Sept. 18, and Bowden is still clever and resourceful enough to find one more win to get above this modest win total kout after gaining 8.2 ypc last fall. An experienced secondary and plenty of potential within the front seven suggests the defense should at least be functional. Beat Deion Sanders' Jackson State in Week Two and Bowden is already halfway to an "over" with his Warhawks.

USC UNDER 9 wins... Last year’s Perils of Pauline act finally caught up with the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game vs. visiting Oregon, when SC couldn’t recover from an early 0-14 hole. Digging out of such ditches was the case most of the truncated 2020 campaign when the Trojans were routinely playing from behind and needed late miracle rallies to survive vs. both Arizona schools and UCLA...and likely saving HC Clay Helton’s job in the process. Helton remains a main topic of conversation at Cardinal & Gold Club gatherings, and more than one Trojan backer is wondering if the school should have made a harder push for Urban Meyer before he decided to move to the NFL instead. All water under the bridge, but Helton remains a main storyline along with prolific QB Kedon Slovis, a peripheral Heisman threat after tossing 17 TD passes in just six games last fall. But any resemblance to the days of Student Body Left & Right of the John McKay and John Robinson I eras are accidental, o.c. Graham Harrell mostly abandoning the run as the Trojans have morphed into a version of not long-ago Texas Tech offenses that Harrell once piloted. Meanwhile, the defense was more opportunistic for new coordinator Todd Orlando last season but nonetheless found itself in trouble in almost every game. Schedule-wise, road trips to Notre Dame, Arizona State, and Cal look daunting, and after so many close calls a year ago we’re not sure the Trojans are going to start domianting foes this fall. Reaching nine wins might be a minimum for Helton to keep his job, but we’re not sure he’s going to make it.

WESTERN KENTUCKY “OVER” 5.5 wins... It wasn’t a complete shock when QB Tyrell Pigrome announced in June that he would not be returning. But that might not be a mortal blow for the Hilltoppers, as Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe (the Southland Player of the Year in 2020) had already transferred in after passing for 1833 yards and 15 TDs in just four games for the Huskies (three of those vs. FBS foes) last fall. Moreover, he’ll have familiar targets, as receivers Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns, and Ben Ratzlaff all followed from HBU, as did o.c. Zach Kittley, whose prolific Husky attack gained 548 ypg in 2020. So, after his offense often misfired last fall, HC Tyson Helton thinks he might have the answers in 2021. Some key playmakers return on defense after the Tops ranked 8th nationally in pass defense a year ago, though d.c, Clayton White has moved to South Carolina as part of Shane Beamer’s new staff. Watch sr. DE DeAngelo Malone, the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. The non-league schedule is challenging, with a pair of Big Ten foes (Indiana, which visits Bowling Green, and Michigan State), plus awkward Army, but as usual there should be plenty of wins to be found in C-USA...especially if the Houston Baptist connection clicks on offense.

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