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Don't Bet On It!: Around the S.E.C.

Football season is getting close. My media guide and my Knowshon Moreno blackout jersey arrived today and I am pumped, so I guess it’s time for me to get around to the first of my weekly forecasts of the weekend’s upcoming games.

You know the drill: I pick every game involving an S.E.C. team, plus some national games of interest, and I keep a running tally of my record. I pick ‘em straight up, not against the spread, because I don’t want to encourage illegal gambling and because, well, I’m bad at this, which is why I begin each set of prognostications with a warning I encourage you to heed: Don’t Bet On It!

Here are this week’s season-opening S.E.C. contests, all of which will be played on Saturday, August 30, unless otherwise noted:

N.C. State at South Carolina (August 28): I’ll be so glad when this whole Steve Spurrier thing in Columbia is done so ESPN will cut it out with this business of putting the Gamecocks on television for early-season Thursday night games. Could we go back to giving the Palmetto State Poultry seven days to prepare for the Classic City Canines instead of nine? (Of course, as another commentator pointed out, having the East Coast U.S.C. open with back-to-back Thursday night games gives Stephen Garcia two free Friday nights and two free Saturday nights in which to get himself back into trouble.) Meanwhile, in Raleigh, Tom O’Brien has to be regretting the fact that this game will keep him from his usual Thursday evening A.A. meeting. O.K., I don’t actually have any factual basis for believing Coach O’Brien is an alcoholic, but I can’t come up with a better explanation for his self-imposed demotion from Boston College to N.C. State than the possibility that he was blind stumbling drunk at the time. Maybe he can go bar-hopping with Garcia after the Gamecocks beat the Wolfpack.

Lighten up, Stevie Boy. I picked your team to win, all right?

Vanderbilt at Miami (Ohio) (August 28): The Commodores return approximately three offensive starters from a team that scored more than 24 points exactly zero times in the last eight games of 2007. Vandy suffered close losses to Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee but fell to Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and Wake Forest by two touchdowns or more. On the road against a M.A.C. team that returns upwards of 17 starters and has posted an all-time 11-12-1 record against the S.E.C., I look for the ‘Dores to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as the RedHawks get it done in (Ohio).

Georgia Southern at Georgia: Ordinarily, I reserve my Bulldog pick for a separate segment called "Too Much Information," in which I try to delve as deeply as possible into the Red and Black’s upcoming opponent. However, inasmuch as it’s the first game of the season, there are no current statistics, and the ‘Dawgs are facing a Division I-AA opponent with eight players suspended for the game, I’m going to spare you the suspense and let you know right off the bat that Georgia will win this game handily.

Appalachian State at Louisiana State: Speaking of S.E.C. teams that finished in the top two last year and are opening against lower-division opponents, can the Mountaineers pull off two upsets in a row? Uh, no. That sort of thing may happen to Michigan, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen to programs with sense enough to hire Les Miles. The Bayou Bengals romp.

Yes, I said something nice about Les Miles. O.K., so I was wrong; he’s a good coach. I told you not to bet on it, didn’t I?

Western Illinois at Arkansas: You want to know the difference between Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Western Illinois? You’ve actually heard of two of them. I mean, seriously, Western Illinois? Aren’t they in the same conference with Minnesota State? Please. The Hogs root.

Louisiana-Monroe at Auburn: The Plainsmen will win this game for one reason and one reason only. No, it’s not superior talent. No, it’s not better coaching. No, it’s not the Tigers’ new offense. It’s the fact that Alabama lost to the Warhawks last year and the War Eagle faithful’s singleminded fixation on all things ‘Bama---which is so extreme that even Georgia Tech fans think they need to focus less on their in-state rival---will have Auburn concentrating on U.L.M. as though Louisiana-Monroe were Louisiana State.

Hawaii at Florida: The Gators don’t need to take this game lightly because the Warriors are a serious W.A.C. team. For one thing, that Colt Brennan kid was a Heisman Trophy finalist and . . . what’s that? Brennan’s gone? Oh. O.K., but, still, at Hawaii, it’s the system, and, as long as native son June Jones is there to . . . I’m sorry? June Jones is at S.M.U.? Well, I’ll be danged. Even so, though, surely the Rainbows’ undefeated regular season counts for something! But wait . . . that’s right, they played no one. Well, anyway, at least Hawaii went to the Sugar Bowl, where . . . never mind. Yeah, Florida’s going to kill Hawaii.

Yes, you’re going to win on Saturday, Timmy. We’re thrilled that you’re thrilled, really.

Memphis at Mississippi: Any series that rotates games between Elvis Presley’s home town and William Faulkner’s home town warrants our attention, particularly when it pits Clemson castoff Tommy West against Arkansas reject Houston Nutt. The postgame handshake should be spirited. (Be honest now; it wouldn’t surprise you in the slightest if either of these guys leaned over and bit a hunk out of the other guy’s ear, Mike Tyson-style, would it?) This ought to be a good game---four straight series meetings between these two have been settled by a touchdown or less---but, in the end, I have to think the Rebels pull it out at home. Admittedly, that pick is somewhat rooted in the fear that, if Ole Miss lost, Coach Nutt’s head would begin to bobble about like Bill Pullman’s during his transformation into Balthazar Getty in "Lost Highway" until he turned into the Tasmanian Devil and went whirling through the Grove, uprooting trees and flinging sorority girls about and generally wreaking havoc, all of which is just too terrible to contemplate.

Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech: Last season’s 8-5 record marked the Western Division Bulldogs’ best record of the 21st century and bucked a trend that saw M.S.U. win exactly three games in five of the previous six seasons. (In 2003, the lone exception to the rule, Mississippi State won two games.) Did 2007 mark a true turnaround for the squad from Starkville? Maybe not. Sylvester Croom’s Bulldog teams have gone 6-14 away from Davis Wade Stadium, with three of those wins coming last year alone. Under Coach Croom, offensively-challenged Mississippi State has lost last year’s season opener (45-0), lost the previous year’s season opener (15-0), lost the previous year’s road opener (28-0), and lost the previous year’s road opener (51-0). Am I the only one seeing a pattern in all those goose eggs? Meanwhile, "Dooley’s Dogs"---Derek Dooley’s, that is---put up 44 points on Hawaii and 31 points on Boise State last year. Against a team as anemic on offense as the S.E.C.’s lesser breed of Bulldog, I believe the W.A.C. version of the same canine will pull off the upset in Ruston, much as Louisiana Tech did the last time these two teams hooked up in Starkville.

Alabama v. Clemson: The bottom line on this one is simple. The Crimson Tide will get better over the course of the season and the Tigers will get worse. Is Clemson the root of all evil? Quite possibly. Should Georgia and Clemson play more often? Most definitely. Would Clemson win this game in November? Not hardly. Will Clemson win this game on Labor Day weekend? Yep.

It occurs to me that, if Alabama and Tennessee swapped season-opening opponents, we’d get two better games and the media could have fun with all the "Slick Rick v. Slick Nick" storylines. However, I live in the Atlanta area, and I couldn’t stand to have the town inundated by all that orange.

Kentucky at Louisville (August 31): I got myself into trouble by picking against the Wildcats last year, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. No, wait . . . yeah, I am. I’m picking the Cardinals to win. I am morally certain I am incorrect in making this pick. I would be equally certain I was in error had I gone the other way. So, really, U.K. fans should thank me.

Tennessee at U.C.L.A. (September 1): Are Bruins fans justified in lowering their expectations? After this game, they will be, as the Vols win big. A year from now, this game might be a different story; heck, two months from now, it might be a different story. Right now, though, too much remains in doubt in Westwood for me to trust in the Bruins’ ability to beat back a Big Orange club bent on revenge for last year’s West Coast embarrassment.

Well, there they are . . . my first round of almost wholly erroneous forecasts of the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference action. Bear in mind, however, that these are presented for your entertainment, not for your edification, so, please, whatever you do . . . Don’t Bet On It!

Coming soon: National Games of Interest.

Go ‘Dawgs!