Tony's Top 10: Can Georgia's Swann slow Clemson's Watkins, and more
Kicking off a new season, let's look ahead to Georgia corner Damian Swann vs. Clemson playmaker Sammy Watkins and 'unheralded' LSU.
Please accept my apologies, but I was a little late getting my column to the editors today, which is a clear "inadvertent violation" of bylaw 184.108.40.206-A, subsection C of the CBSSports.com code of conduct.
Our senior columnist, Dennis Dodd, suggested that I sit out the first half of Saturday night's Georgia-Clemson game as my punishment. Then he had a change of heart.
"Nah, that would be silly," said Mr. Dodd. "Nobody would ever sit somebody for half a game. What sense would that make?"
So with my eligibility, and most of my reputation, still intact, we present this season's first edition of Tony's Top 10 questions heading into weekend. I hope we never have to wait this long for a season to start again:
1. What's the best individual matchup of the weekend?
That's easy: Georgia cornerback Damian Swann vs. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins set the world on fire two years ago when he caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last season, due to a combination of illness, injury and suspensions, Watkins "only" caught 57 passes. After some heart-to-heart meetings with offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Watkins has rededicated himself to the game and is in tremendous shape for his junior, and probably final, season of college football.
Watkins has been moved to the boundary receiver, the position where DeAndre "Nuke" Hopkins excelled in 2012 (82 catches, 1,405 yards). That means he'll get a lot of one-on-one coverage by Georgia's Swann, who led the Bulldogs in interceptions last season with five. Here's the issue: Swann's practice time this week was limited by a hip flexor and a groin strain. Stay tuned.
2. Does Alabama feel at home in the Dome?
That would be the Georgia Dome and the answer is an emphatic yes. Alabama opened the 2008 season, Nick Saban's second in Tuscaloosa, against No. 9 Clemson in the Georgia Dome, winning 34-10 and setting the stage for an undefeated regular season. The following season Alabama again opened in Atlanta, beating Virginia Tech 34-24 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. That was the springboard for a 14-0 season and Saban's first national championship at Alabama.
Alabama again opens the season in Atlanta on Saturday and again it is against Virginia Tech. Alabama is 4-1 in the Georgia Dome under Saban, the only loss coming in the 2008 SEC Championship Game to Florida and Tim Tebow. That Florida team went on to win the national title.
3. Nobody is talking about LSU; is that a good thing?
Yes, because LSU, ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll, is going to fool a lot of people before this season is over. Yes, the Tigers lost an unprecedented 10 juniors to the NFL Draft but there is still talent -- lots of it -- in Baton Rouge. That will become apparent Saturday when LSU opens the season with Big 12 dark horse TCU in Arlington, Texas.
But it is not going to be easy for LSU. TCU had the No. 1 defense in the Big 12 (No. 16 nationally) last season but the Horned Frogs' best player, defensive end Devonte Fields (suspension) will not play. TCU also returns quarterback Casey Pachall, who sat out last season on suspension.
4. How big is Saturday for Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen?
By any realistic measure, Mullen has done an excellent job in the four years since he left Florida to become the head coach at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have been to three straight bowl games. Of the top 20 crowds in school history, 19 have come in Mullen's four years in Starkville. Mississippi State enters this season with a string of 23 consecutive sellouts at Davis Wade Stadium.
But it would help Mullen to get a big win in the opener against Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs started 7-0 last season against a weak schedule and rose to No. 11 in the polls. Then the schedule got real with Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss in the span of five weeks and the Bulldogs finished 8-5.
And with Ole Miss lighting it up in recruiting, Mullen could use the energy that would be provided with a win over the Cowboys, picked to win the Big 12.
5. Of the four new coaches who will make their debuts in the SEC on Saturday, which one will have the most success early?
Right now I'm going with Gus Malzahn of Auburn, who will start a junior college transfer (Nick Marshall) at quarterback when the Tigers host Mike Leach and Washington State. Despite last season's inexplicable 3-9 train wreck, which sent Gene Chizik packing, Auburn has more athletes on campus than Tennessee (Butch Jones), Kentucky (Mark Stoops) and Arkansas (Bret Bielema).
Jones (Austin Peay) and Bielema (Louisiana) should win their openers easily. Kentucky may struggle with Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky, which beat the Wildcats (32-31 in OT) a year ago.
6. Is Jordan Lynch a dark-horse Heisman candidate?
We were rightfully impressed with Johnny Manziel's Heisman-winning numbers last season (3,706 passing, 1,410 rushing). If not for Johnny Football's unforgettable season, a lot more people would have paid attention to what Jordan Lynch (3,138 passing, 1,815 rushing, 44 touchdowns) did in leading Northern Illinois to the MAC championship and a spot in the Orange Bowl. Lynch returns four starters from his offensive line and for the second straight year opens the season against Iowa, the only team to beat the Huskies in the regular season of 2012.
The Hawkeyes won 18-17 last season in Chicago and desperately need to win this one at home after going 4-8 in 2013.
7. Is Northwestern as good as we think they are?
I could certainly be wrong about this but I think Northwestern is a scary team. I love what they do offensively with quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.
In fact, when you look at where Ohio State could conceivably lose on its very manageable schedule, the Buckeyes' Oct. 5 game at Northwestern jumps out at you. In what should be a fun, wide-open game, Pat Fitzgerald takes his team to Berkeley for Sonny Dykes' first game as head coach of the Bears. Normally, I would give Sonny a shot with his ultra-up-tempo offense but he'll be starting a true freshman at quarterback in Jared Goff.
8. Does Kolton Browning have another scare left in him?
A year ago Browning and Louisiana-Monroe (alma mater of CBS Sports' own Tim Brando) almost shocked the world twice. In the opener the Warhawks beat a Bobby Petrino-less Arkansas team 34-31 in overtime. The next week they had Auburn on the ropes but let the Tigers slip away (31-28, also in OT). Browning is back and inquiring minds want to know: Does ULM have another scare left as it goes to Oklahoma? The Sooners are starting a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Trevor Knight. The OU defense returns three starters from a group that finished 50th in scoring last season.
9. Is Boise State's Joe Southwick ready for prime time?
After a season where Boise State averaged "only" 30.2 points per game, Chris Petersen (84-8 career record) decided the playbook had gotten a little too thick and much too complicated. So he spent the offseason looking for those plays his offense could execute well. That should only help senior quarterback Southwick (2,730 yards passing, 19 TD), who had a strong four-game finish in 2012, including a Las Vegas bowl win over Washington, Saturday's opening day opponent in Seattle.
The game will be at Husky Stadium, which has had a $250 million facelift. After a 26-25 record in four years, this is supposed to be Steve Sarkisian's breakout season. Quarterback Keith Price, a fifth-year senior, is trying to bounce back after a disappointing 2012.
10. Can Tommy Tuberville keep it going at Cincinnati?
Sometimes a move is best for all parties involved. Such was the case with Tuberville, who shocked a lot of people last December when he left Texas Tech for Cincinnati, which opens at home Saturday against Purdue. With the move, Texas Tech brought back one of its own (Kliff Kingsbury) and Tuberville got the chance to replace Butch Jones, who posted seasons of 10-3 and 9-3 before leaving for Tennessee.
Tuberville, 59, earned his coaching chops as an assistant at Miami and Texas A&M and as a head coach at Ole Miss and Auburn, where he posted six straight wins over a pre-Saban Alabama program. Tuberville was never a fit at Texas Tech, coaching in the shadow of Mike Leach. Cincinnati, where he was reunited with former Auburn assistant AD Whit Babcock, looks like a fit: Saturday's home opener is a sellout.
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