The 2012 season is already here and, yes, the capper is ready to go. As is usually the case, week 1 is very tricky, so proceed with caution.
Without benefit of seeing these teams in action, there are more questions than answers at this point. But there are certain things we can use to gauge a team's strength. And no, I'm not talking about spring practice. I did not watch spring practice. No one should watch spring practice.
Here's what we have to work with. We have last year; sure the teams are different, but depending on how many players are back, last year's results can be useful.
We also have history. I've never been a huge fan of trends over time as the odds of a specific game fitting into a trend are slim at best. That said, early season trends can be valueable.
Like I said, it's not much, but it's something. I'll tread lightly early on, especially Week 1.
As for this space, I am going to stick with the format I implemented last year as it seemed to work better than the units system I used the previous years. As a reminder, "Cream of the Crop" are my top plays, followed by "Best of the Rest" and "Passing Thoughts," which are games of high interest that I would personally pass on. I'll generally have more to say about my top games than the ones in the "passing" category.
Now, with the formalities out of the way, let's get started on the new season. You'll notice last year's regular season numbers atop each section.
Cream of the Crop (2011: 40-43-0)
Ohio at Penn State: If you've followed this column at all over the past few years, you know that I advise against taking the under when it's in the mid-to-low 40s. However, this looks like a great spot to take the under as Penn State is in shambles on offense and Ohio actually has a defense. What Ohio doesn't have is much of an offense, it all adds up to an extremely boring contest, all outside factors aside, and a low-scoring matchup.
Total: Under 44.5
Western Michigan at Illinois: Upset alert. Western Michigan nearly pulled off the upset against Illinois last year, and most of the starters from that game return this season. Sure, the surprise factor is gone, but it might not matter as WMU looks solid this year. Illinois also has a recent history of playing down to its opponents. How else can you explain losing to Minnesota last year?
Side: WMU +10
Colorado at Colorado State: Colorado State just hasn't been the same since coach Lubick retired, and the misery looks like it will continue again this season with most picking CSU to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West. Colorado is also picked to finish near the bottom of its conference, but there's a big difference between the MWC and the Pac-12. The Buffs also showed some signs of improvement late last season with a couple surprise victories over conference foes. Rivalry or not, CSU is still a mess. As long as this number stays under one score, it's worth a look.
Side: Colorado -6.5
Best of the Rest (2011: 49-45-1)
Minnesota at UNLV: The Gophers should improve this season, but I'm not sure they are the kind of team that can lay more than a touchdown on the road. UNLV won't be any better than it's been the last five years this season, but that shouldn't matter in this one. Expect the Gophers to make enough mistakes to keep this one close, almost to the end.
Side: UNLV +8.5
UCLA at Rice: A 60 percent chance of rain and gusty winds in the forecast, yet the total continues to rise. It's fishy, but I have to assume the people pushing that line are just flat-out wrong. Rice is sure to be brutal on both sides of the ball again this season, which means the Owls will struggle to score each week. UCLA might be better than it was last season, but the Bruins are no juggernaut on the offense.
Total: Under 58.5
Boise State at Michigan State: Fortunes have been lost betting against Boise State the last five years, but this might be the year for some payback. The Broncos likely will dominate their conference once again, but they have a bunch of players to replace, namely Kellen Moore and nine - count 'em, nine - starters on the defense. That will be too much to overcome in the season opener as the Spartans will be jacked-up for this game and win with authority.
Side: MSU -7
Southern Mississippi at Nebraska: Is this the year that Nebraska finally puts the hammer down on the Big Ten? With most of its key members back from last season, it sure looks like an opportune time to lay a whooping or two on some lowly teams this season. Southern Miss isn't exactly a lowly team, but the Golden Eagles are heavily outmatched here, and this could be a long day for them. Expect the Huskers to run the ball with success all day and have little trouble slowing the Southern Miss offense.
Side: Nebraska -20
Buffalo at Georgia: After a strong finish in 2011, expectations are high for the Bulldogs entering this season. Georgia started slowly last season, but that had more to do with the competition than anything else. It looks like the Bulldogs have learned their lesson as they start this season with a cupcake. Buffalo is not quite the cupcake it was a decade ago, but let's get real here, this is SEC country, not the MAC, the Bulls are in for a very long Saturday.
Side: Georgia -37
PASSing Thoughts (2011: 38-34-2)
South Carolina at Vanderbilt: The total here has dropped steadily since it opened, and that could be due to the weather (there's a chance of rain during the game) or it could be due to the Gamecocks defense. Whatever the case, South Carolina held Vandy to only three points last season, and I have to imagine it can do something similar this year. Expect a little early season rust from both offenses in this one.
Total: Under 45.5
Tennessee vs. NC State: It looks like both teams should be potent on offense this season. The only question is how long will they take to gel. Considering the line is in a pretty friendly spot, the over looks like the play here.
Total: Over 52
Notre Dame vs. Navy at Ireland: The game those of us in the Midwest or the East Coast have been waiting for our entire lives. No, not this particular matchup, and, no, not a game in Ireland, but a game that starts right when we wake up. Hey, we don't ask for much, just some action from the time we wake up until after we go to sleep. As for the game itself, it doesn't appear to be anything special other than the annual, "how good will Notre Dame be this year" query. My guess is the Irish will look strikingly similar to the 2010 and 2011 versions, which means they won't cover a big number like this.
Side: Navy +16
Miami at Boston College: Again, if I'm going to break my rule about taking the under when the line is set low, I'm going to do it early in the season. Miami historically starts slowly on offense, and B.C. hasn't had an offense since Matt Ryan graduated.
Total: Under 44
Clemson vs. Auburn: Clemson always starts quickly and once expectations rise, the Tigers sink. I see no reason why that trends fails this season. Look for an early-season surge followed by an inexplicable loss somewhere down the road.
Side: Clemson -3.5
Michigan vs. Alabama at Dallas: Why did this line have to move to 14? I liked it at 12 a lot better, but then again, if I liked it at 12, I must have thought Alabama could win by two scores. I still feel that way, but since the number is right on 14, I'll pass.
Side: Alabama -14