Just so we’re clear, let’s recap the reasons why the 2011 college football season can’t get here soon enough:
  1. USC, Michigan, and Lindsay Lohan are all suddenly more stable than Ohio State.
  2. Paul Wulff has outlived Butch Davis.
  3. The total number of offseason Ponzi schemes and Jacory Harris penguin references is up to three.
  4. Mack Brown hasn’t thrown Bryan Harsin or Manny Diaz under a bus, and it’s been eight months.
  5. Sources are allegedly talking to Danny Sheridan.
  6. Willie Lyles is playing the victim card and sort of getting away with it.
  7. A program coached by Mike Sherman potentially holds the keys to the future of college football.

Well then.  Could this offseason have been any weirder?  Bruce Feldman will be thrilled once CBS flies him home from Iran.

Naturally, with all the offseason turbulence, LSU-Oregon should feel like a breath of fresh air.  Instead, I’m almost afraid to commit to feeling anything.  I suppose this is the new norm in college football, where watching any game comes with the risk of someone showing up with that light from Men In Black and erasing its existence from your conscious mind.  Where every play is like watching Roger Clemens pitch to Barry Bonds.  Where every victory might be stolen off the back of a truck.  Where results are written in pencil, not permanent ink.

Oh well.  COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011!  Watch, but don’t remember!

(3) OREGON -1 over  (4) LSU

You have to ask whether losing both Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard to suspension automatically puts LSU behind the eight ball, even with Cliff Harris rocking a suspension of his own for the Ducks.  Actually, you don’t even have to ask when you consider that Jarrett Lee will be your Week One starter for the Tigers.  I repeat: Jarrett Lee is your Week One starter.

(Side note: College Gameday needs to have a “Jarrett Lee  Lever” at every remote broadcast, much the way Conan O’Brien did for old clips of Walker Texas Ranger.  Pull the handle and a random highlight from Lee’s 2008 season is displayed.  This needs to happen.)

Look, I’ve heard the argument that Lee is improving, citing some of his recent, late-game heroics, but I remain unconvinced.  Especially not in the first week of the season against last season’s BCS runner-up.

For what it’s worth, Will Lyles has Oregon as a $19,000 favorite.

My prediction: Oregon 34, LSU 24

(14) TCU -4.5 over BAYLOR

The good news for Baylor is that most of TCU’s offense from last season is gone, meaning that another 35-point loss is less likely.  The bad news is that Baylor hasn’t played defense since the Southwest Conference split.  Translation: TCU is going to run the ball 40 or more times for at least 200 yards, and there won’t be a damned thing Baylor can do about it.

It should be noted that Robert Griffin III always makes Baylor a threat, and with an offensive unit that returns nine starters, the Bears will have the firepower to come back against almost anyone.  But this isn’t a model for success against TCU, whose defense remains one of the most reliable units in college football, regardless of experience.

My prediction: TCU 28, Baylor 21

(25) USC -22 over MINNESOTA

This continues to feel like the most improbable, mismatched and unnecessary non-conference match-up in the history of non-conference match-ups.  It’s college football’s version of Rush Hour 3.

To make matters worse, last year’s edition of this game was rigged.  Just had to be.  Perhaps it was a personal favor to then-Minnesota coach Tim Brewster to help him keep his job, but the Trojans went to Minneapolis an 11-point favorite and won exactly 32-21 after trailing late in the third quarter.  Factor in a hint of the “Why are we in Minnesota when we’re from Southern California?” factor among USC’s key contributors, and this was a sucker bet from the get-go.

This year, with Minnesota overhauling its entire program and USC playing at home with a more experienced cast, there is no reason this game should be within 30, let alone 22.

My pick: USC 42, Minnesota 10

LOUISIANA-MONROE +29 over (6) Florida State

There are two types of people in this world: those who believe Florida State will win the BCS Championship this season, and those who don’t.  There is no in-between.  If you belong to the first group, it’d be wise to start battling that Zantac addiction now.

This game should be a complete cakewalk for Florida State given all the talent it has coming back on both sides of the ball.  The problem is that it knows so.  Meanwhile this is clearly the Super Bowl for a veteran Louisiana-Monroe team that figures to be a darkhorse contender for the Sun Belt.  Does that mean the Warhawks win?  Absolutely not.  But it does mean that ULM hangs with the ‘Noles for at least a half and plants seeds of doubt that will eventually bloom when… wait for it… Florida State loses in late September at Clemson.

My pick: Florida State 42-14

SOUTH FLORIDA +10 vs. (16) NOTRE DAME

Which intangible do you value more?  The good karma of Tom Hammond’s annual day off due to a track and field event, or the potential “Eff You” factor of Skip Holtz killing Notre Dame’s season in Week One?

I’d like to call it a push, but Skip Holtz has proven himself a worthy adversary, especially on the road.  The truth is that this game terrifies me and feels like the kind of match-up where Notre Dame suffers a devastating injury and NBC insists on showing the perpetually-glazed look on Dayne Crist’s face no less than 52 times.  You know, just to build suspense.

(Side note: Ever notice that every NBC college football broadcast has an uncanny way of sucking the life out of anyone watching?  Blows my mind considering the high production quality of Sunday Night Football.  News flash: You can’t build artificial excitement in the college game by showing gratuitous shots of the band and/or cheerleaders for three hours, especially after failed third down conversions or untimely clipping penalties.  Also, the introductory score for Notre Dame football needs to be completely scrapped and re-tooled—some quality music could really get the juices flowing, no?  Instead, NBC trots out a theme that feels both horribly incomplete and like it should be followed by your local weather on the 8’s.)

There is no reason Notre Dame shouldn’t win this football game.  The Irish have better talent on both sides of the football and, arguably, a coach who knows how to use it.  But this is Notre Dame.  And Notre Dame loves to scare people.

My prediction: Notre Dame 30, South Florida 21
Bonus prediction: Notre Dame scores a late defensive TD to ice it

(19) GEORGIA +3.5 over (5) BOISE STATE

For my money, it gets no better than a matchup featuring Boise State against any SEC team.  Mainly because every SEC homer in the south will view this game, regardless of outcome, as a pure function of Georgia and the SEC as a whole.  If the Dawgs win, clearly it’s due to SEC supremacy.  If the Dawgs lose, well, it’s because they suck and Boise State got lucky.  End of story.

The real danger with Boise State is that it has a top five ranking without the top five hype that it had a year ago.  Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, and virtually the entire defense return; this team is still loaded and has had great success in each of the last two seasons against pre-eminent programs in the opening week of the season.  If this game were in Idaho, Boise might be favored by more than a touchdown.

That said, I can’t help myself and will continue picking against the Broncos.  Just feels like too many points to give in an environment that will be louder and more hostile than last year’s opener in Washington, DC.  And I’m secretly the biggest Aaron Murray fan in Pennsylvania, so I trust that Georgia can keep this one close, even if it doesn’t win.

My prediction: Boise State 27, Georgia 24

SMU +15.5 over (8) TEXAS A&M

Consider the factors at play here:

1) Texas A&M wants to go to the SEC
2) SMU wants to go to the Big 12
3) People are starting to give Mike Sherman the benefit of the doubt

There’s more riding on this game than you might think. Both teams are looking to make an impression, and only one of them has Mike Sherman.

There’s plenty of reason to be excited about the Aggies in 2011, what with 18 starters returning from a successful 9-4 campaign last season.  But when’s the last time Texas A&M got this much coverage in a preseason?  Remind me… when did people start feeling comfortable with Mike Sherman again?  Does he really have what it takes to protect his team from the chatter that has this team as a Big 12 contender and 2012 SEC enrollee?  I vote no.

Also, don’t sleep on SMU.  This team has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the Aggies, and there’s a decent chance of it knocking off TCU in late September.  Bottom line: if Kyle Padron can figure out an experienced A&M secondary, we could be looking at a shootout, and potentially an upset.

My prediction: Texas A&M 42, SMU 35

WEST VIRGINIA -23 over MARSHALL

I am genuinely concerned about how Bill Stewart might react to the start of West Virginia’s 2011 season.  Remember the fairy tale that Oliver Luck trotted out about Stewart’s kind old soul fading gracefully into the sunset?  How’d that work out?

If Bill Stewart turns into the next Ray Finkle, I want you all to have expected it.  I’m talking full-on Finkleville with the little old lady baking football cookies (laces out), the bedroom with Holgorsen voodoo dolls, and maybe the kidnapping of the Mountaineer mascot.  I’m just saying.

Seriously, HAS ANYONE BEEN KEEPING TABS ON BILL STEWART?!?

My prediction: West Virginia 45, Marshall 10