As I sat down to make my picks last week, there was an overwhelming sense of discomfort. There wasn't really and truly a game about which I was totally comfortable.
What followed was a 2-4 record that was every bit as embarrassing as predictable. That clunker of a week brought my record down to 6-6 and drew plenty of ribbing from a lot of friends and family members who read this column [some of whom are dumb enough to use my picks as starting points for their own real-life gambling ... I mean, hypothetically, of course].
The fact of the matter is at this point of the season, we can't know much -- about any team. A lot of that will clear up this week around the country and in Knoxville, where the Vols -- ranked for the first time in more than four years -- will test their ilk against the longtime nemesis Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium. In between trying to keep my nose from bleeding and guarding against whiplash from craning my neck backwards to see the jumbotron [is that even visible from halfway up in Section II?] I'll be trying to give my all for the Vols from the upper deck.
I've said it all week and I'll say it again: I believe we're two touchdowns better than this team. There have been plenty of times in the past when the Vols have played the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Gators and were seemingly better on paper and still found a way to lose, so this one is by no means in the bag. But I cannot remember when we've had this much of an advantage at the skill positions.
Tennessee fans are supremely confident. Florida fans are also supremely confident -- though many Gators returned their tickets, choosing not to come to Knoxville for the Saturday night game. Is that closet fear or economical issues? I don't know. But I do know that I'll be there, and I have a feeling the streak is breaking this week.
I feel much better about this than I did when I sat down to make my picks last week. So, there's that, at least. On the bright side, Kid B is right about giving you guys "free money" picks ... just pick the opposite of what he does. I keed.
FIRST, A QUICK LOOK BACK
SHEP (Week 2: 2-4; Total: 6-6)
- Nebraska -6 over UCLA. Blackshirt defense! Gives up 36 points to UCLA offense! 0-1
- Louisiana Tech -3.5 over Houston. Houston, we have a shootout. Louisiana Tech, we have a winner. 1-1
- UTEP +7.5 over Ole Miss. Always bet against Nick Lamaison. Except when he's planning on covering. Which was not last week. 1-2
- Oklahoma State -10.5 over Arizona. Oklahoma State's returning their whole defense from last year, don't worry about them giving up points to Arizona. Arizona went to OT against Toledo for goodness sake. checks box score. Oh. Oh I see. 1-3.
- East Carolina +22 over South Carolina. I can't even make fun of this one. It was the perfect matchup for ECU. They got killed. It happens. 1-4.
- Mississippi State -3 over Auburn. The monkey is off Dan Mullen's back. And on Gene Chizik's. Its arms are filled with flaming bags of poo. 2-4.
KID B (Week 2: 1-5; Total: 5-7)
- NC State-4.5 over UConn: NC State has a defense! But apparently not a quarterback. 0-1
- Oregon-35 over Fresno "not in fact a" State: When you bet Oregon -35, that includes the part of the game where they decide that they're already ahead 35-3 and might as well give all their starters a rest. 0-2
- USC-26.5 over Syracuse: This was just too easy. I mean, it must've been a typo, right? Right? Oh, right. 0-3
- Vanderbilt-3.5 over Northwestern: Vanderbilt fans want James Franklin to take over playcalling duties. That's really all you need to know about this one. snicker. 0-4
- Oklahoma St.-10 over Arizona: KidB somehow got a half-point that Brad didn't get. It didn't really help. 0-5
- Kansas St.-7 over THE U: Woo 50 points! 1-5
I_S (Week 2: 4-2; Total: 7-5)
- New Mexico State +21.5 over Ohio. Ohio apparently doesn't know what a letdown is. loses to Marshall. 0-1
- UCF +18 over Ohio State. Didn't really look like a plausible upset bid, but I suppose stayed with 18. 1-1
- Penn State +10 over Virginia. Did look like a plausible upset bid. Actually, Penn State looked dominant. Still, will have to settle for a mere cover, because Penn State forget that it's good to have a placekicker. 2-1
- ??? +14 over Notre Dame. I'm pretty sure Notre Dame only won by three. Who did they play again? 3-1
- Arkansas State -23 over Memphis. How the heck did Memphis' offense score four touchdowns?!?!?! checks box score, sees blocked punt return and fumble return. How the heck did Memphis' offense score two touchdowns!?!?!?! 3-2
- Texas Tech -18 over Texas State. Looks like somebody gave Texas State a teeny bit much respect after that Houston win. 4-2
ONTO THE LOCKS
- Virginia Tech -10 over Pittsburgh. This is one of those puzzling lines to me. The Panthers are B-A-D. As if losing convincingly to an FCS opponent -- albeit a power in Youngstown State -- wasn't enough the first week, they followed it up with a blowout loss to Cincinnati. Now, they play a team that is on the cusp of the top 10 though always overrated. The Hokies don't score a lot, but they'll score enough to cover.
- Southern Cal -9 over Stanford. I don't exactly know what to think about the Cardinal. They start out with a squeaker against San Jose State only to turn around and dominate a Duke team I thought wasn't as bad as Duke teams normally are. The Trojans are ridiculously talented but paper-thin. Still, last week's sluggish effort against Syracuse could be attributed to flying across the country. I think the jetlag wears off and Kiffin rolls.
- BYU -4 over Utah. Listen, I've come to the realization that I like picking favorites to cover. It's just how I gamble -- [or would ... if it were legal]. But these first three lines are solid regardless. Maybe I should be concerned that the Utes beat the Cougars 54-10 last year, but I'm not. I like this matchup because BYU wants revenge for that embarrassment. Also, Utah lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a season-ending injury in last week's loss to Utah State, and BYU is 10th in the nation in sacks and loves to play aggressively.
- UCLA -17 over Houston. The Cougars are 0-2 and the post-Kevin Sumlin era has begun miserably. Meanwhile, I don't know what's up in Pasadena, but Jim Mora Jr. has the Bruins 2-0 coming off an impressive win over No. 14 Nebraska. I just don't think Houston's D can stop UCLA, and I think this spread is too low.
- Texas A&M -12.5 over SMU. There were times last week when the Aggies looked like an SEC team ... and then there were times [entire second half] when they looked like Texas A&M. Still, SMU allowed 59 points to Baylor in Week 1, and RGIII didn't play. So, pardon me if I think the Aggies are going to do enough offensively to win by a couple touchdowns.
- Alabama -20 over Arkansas. I hate Alabama, so I hate picking Alabama. But the Tide are the best team in the nation, and the Razorbacks are in total disarray. Will Tyler Wilson play after suffering a head injury in a shocking loss to Louisiana Monroe last week? Should he play? If he does, will it matter? The answer to all of these is probably "no." Bama's pass rush is nasty, and Arkansas' offensive line is the other nasty. Plus, the Hogs don't have a defense. It's a big line, but I think UA covers. Yeah ... all favorites this week. Gross.
- Texas A&M -12.5 over SMU: SMU is bad at football this year. And I went back and watched that TAMU / Florida game and that QB for TAMU is a quick one. He can move. And they've got some nifty running backs as well. I think they'll walk (run) all over SMU.
- BYU-4 over Utah: Utah is terrible on offense. I don't believe they can score to save themselves. And I like the QB for BYU. He has mad moxie. Mad, crazy, silly moxie. So, I_S is taking Utah. I guess he thinks Utah is going to win this game outright. Because certainly he wouldn't take Utah unless he thought Utah would be winning it outright. Right? Three points is a pretty small window to be hoping for. Well, BYU wins this game outright. Yeah, the mormons wins this holy war comfortably. That was a joke.
- Northern Illinois-3 over Army: straightforward analysis here, ladies and gentlemen. Army is bad at football. Real real bad at football.
- USC-9 over Stanford: Stanford will be a popular pick here because USC looked bad and Stanford looked good. But USC under Kiffin has always poops the bed once early in the year in a road game. So now they've gotten that out of the way. And Stanford looked good against Duke. Need I say more? I just don't think Stanford has the athletes to stay on the field with USC in this game.
- Mississippi State-16.5 over Troy: This one guy Troy used to be pretty good at football. We think he is past his prime. He hasn't looked good this year.
- Florida+3 over Tennessee: I mean, this guy Tyler Bray...his arm isn't really THAT good. I don't think he'll really be able to go deeeep against the mighty mighty Florida defense. And that Muschamp guy is just so savvy on the sideline. He isn't in any way shape or form a functional retard there on the sideline. Not. At. All. And Florida's offense is actually really really good. I don't care what you guys say about various offensive coordinators and lack of any semblance of offensive lubrication, I remember that offense back in '08 with Percy Harvin, and let the record reflect that these guys are wearing the same uniforms as those guys back in 2008. The exact same uniforms, y'all. Does this mean nothing?
- Penn State -7 over Navy. Liked this a whole lot better when it was -5.5 yesterday, but I still don't think people understand (A) That Ohio loss is not terrible, (B) Penn State dominated Virginia, and (C) Navy is terrible. I mean, they lost by 40 to Notre Dame. If Penn State has their heads in this one, they cruise.
- Texas A&M -12.5 over SMU. Okay, we might have a potential letdown here. But they have [insert FCS school] next week, so it's not a sandwich, and SMU should provide a great opportunity to exorcise some demons. Because they're bad at football.
- Ohio State -16.5 over Cal. I've been playing the Buckeyes' game three weeks in a row. I don't think people realize how terrible Cal is. Or that they're even worse on the road.
- Oklahoma State/Louisiana over 73. When the Cajuns played OSU last year, the total hit 90. When the Cajuns played Arizona last year, the total hit 80. It's not clear that the Pokes have a defense, and both teams certainly have offenses. I'll take a high total and go higher.
- Notre Dame +6 over Michigan State. I'm not sure why, I just have a feeling that ND keeps it close. The Irish have a weakness in the secondary, but I'm not sure Sparty has the QB to exploit it. Under also looks decent, even all the way down at 42.
- Utah +4 over BYU. My favorite dog of the week (Rutgers) played last night, so I'm stuck with the rabble. That said, I think Utah State is better than people think, I don't think Utah's hearts were in last week's game, and I think Utah's backup QB might actually be an upgrade. And I still love their defense. This one is a figgie either way.
FIVE KEYS FOR TENNESSEE
- Stay In Rush Lanes. This is just the type of game where the Vols could have Florida all bottled up in third-and-long and then Jeff Driskel breaks contain and runs for 23 yards and a first down. It feels like it could be a Connor Shaw situation from last year. As aggressive as UT's defense tries to be, it opens itself up to the big play. Guys like Jacques Smith and Curt Maggitt will be hyped for this game, but they also need to be disciplined. Getting gashed by Georgia State means a 25-yard gain. Getting gashed by the Gators means giving up touchdowns.
- Protect The House By Protecting The Ball. Tennessee absolutely cannot afford to turn it over in this game. I believe the Gators are going to need some offensive help to be able to hang with the high-octane passing game that UT boasts -- so the Vols have to be heck-bent on not providing it by coughing up the ball. I believe Will Muschamp learned his lesson last year trying to pressure Bray into mistakes. He'll drop an extra guy back into disguised coverages in this one unless he's just too stubborn, and UT is going to have a little extra work to throw the ball. Bray has to be smart.
- Get Off The Field. For the first time possibly in my life, UT has better skill-position players than Florida, which wants to grind it out, control the clock and run off time and yardage with Mike Gillislee. UT wants the football and to push the petal down in the passing game. In order to do that, they've got to keep Florida from sustaining drives and chewing clock. This will be the biggest test thus far for Sal Sunseri's defense, and Tennessee cannot afford to wait until the second half to make adjustments. Covering Jordan Reed and Trey Burton is going to be a necessity. In my opinion, that's the two biggest weapons Florida has, and they could be major mismatch problems for a Tennessee team that lacks discipline at times defensively.
- Head Off The Home Run. For the past 14 million years, the Gators have had big-play touchdowns against UT. From Danny Wuerffel fades to Brandon James special teams touchdowns to Chris Rainey's length-of-the-field bubble screen runs. UF doesn't have as many home run threats this year, but that doesn't mean that a guy like Andre Debose or Solomon Patton can't break free for a long score. Not only does UT need to grab an early lead, it needs to keep Florida to having to work to generate its own offense. I don't think the Gators are capable of consistently succeeding in doing that. I believe Gillislee is a good back but a good back who is hobbled with a nagging injury. Driskel grew up a bunch on the road in College Station, but he's going to be forced to put up major points to win this one.
- Feed Off The Energy. I'm so fired up right now just thinking about how electric the atmosphere is going to be Saturday night in Neyland. As fans, it's time for us to reclaim our house and as a program, it's time for us to reclaim our spot in The Conversation. This team -- especially with this quarterback -- has the mental makeup to capitalize on getting fired up about the game and have the short-term memory to forget mistakes. Bray has the same demeanor as former quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Casey Clausen, the last two signal-callers to lead UT to wins over the Gators. He's fearless to the point of being flippant and definitely has the necessary swagger. But he's never won a game like this, either. An atmosphere like what we're going to have Saturday and the players' confidence in Bray's abilities can be a huge bonus. We need to feed off that early and keep it going.