The first game is at noon EDT.
ECU @ NC State (-17), 12pm EDT on ACCN
One of the most intriguing hires this offseason was Mike Houston agreeing to become the new head coach of the East Carolina Pirates. Houston was the former head coach of James Madison and had a record of 22-2 with two FCS National Championship appearances. He’ll have his work cut out for him to fix an offense that couldn’t score (22 PPG) and a defense (37 PPG) that gave up a ton of points.
The NC State Wolfpack are a wild card after having lost fifth-year senior QB Ryan Finley to the NFL Draft. They’ll be handing the keys over to Matt McKay (RS So.) who has only attempted eight passes with the Wolfpack. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said, “McKay’s legs are his greatest strength as he’s a powerful runner.” However, the known quantity for the Wolfpack are their edge rushers on D. Senior James Smith-Williams (DE) is an athletic freak and many projects he’ll double his sack total (6) from 2018.
Houston understands the Pirates aren’t a one-year fix. However, he has an up-and-coming dual-threat quarterback in Holton Ahlers (So.) who accounted for much of the offense last season. Also, the unknown quantity at quarterback for the Wolfpack makes me skeptical. Not to mention, Houston played NCST only a year ago, so he already has some previous insight.
Pick: ECU (+17)
Ole Miss @ Memphis (-5.5), 12pm EDT on ABC
Memphis Coach Mike Norvell might be the most underrated coach in the country. Norvell is an offensive guru for the Tigers averaging 40 PPG since being hired in 2015. Senior Patrick Taylor (RB) had a 1,000-yard season but likely will have his workload increased after All-American Darrell Henderson left for the NFL. The Tiger’s weakness though is the defense (32 PPG). Senior Bryce Huff (DE) had a breakout season grabbing 9.5 sacks and a team-high 19 tackles for loss.
The Rebels are considered a mirror image of Memphis. Ole Miss Coach Matt Luke in his short time has created a high-profile offense that finished in the top thirty in 2018. However, after the departure of gunslinger Jordan Ta’amu, the Rebels will rely on Matt Corral (Fr.) to take over the play-making duties. Senior Scottie Phillips (RB) is expected to be a one-man wrecking ball after his 1,000 all-purpose yard season.
This game will likely be very high scoring and maybe go into the ,40s. I'm putting my confidence in the Memphis defense as they have a few more playmakers. The Rebels do have Junior Mohamed Sanogo (LB) who had 112 total tackles and will arguably be the best defensive player on the field. But he isn't guaranteed to be the starting inside linebacker.
Pick: Memphis (-5.5)
Bucknell @ Temple (-40.5), 3pm EDT on ESPN3
The Bucknell Bison and Temple Owls each have new head coaches. Dave Cecchini, who had a 17-38 record during his five seasons at Valparaiso heads Bucknell and has yet to decide on a quarterback as Tarrin Earle (So.), John Chiarolanzio (Jr.), and Logan Bitkofer (Jr.) all received playing time last year.
Regardless of the quarterback situation, the defense had a fair number of struggles also and allowed over 30 PPG.
Rod Carey is the new head coach for the Owls after spending seven years with Northern Illinois. The Owls have gone bowling the past four seasons, but in the process have lost two head coaches to P5 schools. Junior QB Anthony Russo looks to make strides after having a very up-and-down season throwing 14TDS/14INT.
Temple is very good at clock management. I expect them to run the ball as much as possible to keep the pressure off Russo. However, don't be surprised if Bucknell manages to get a turnover or two. The defense made some strides toward the end of the season.
Pick: Bucknell (+40.5)
Holy Cross @ Navy (-21.5), 3:30pm EDT on CBSSN
In 2018, the Navy Midshipmen had unexpected turmoil after missing their first bowl game in five years. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo has always been a hot name on the circuit for a P5 coaching position but has decided to stay in Annapolis, where the Middies are one of the few teams who still run the triple-option offense. Niumatalolo will look to Senior Malcolm Perry (QB) to take the reigns after being benched early in 2018. Perry rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and while that it's impressive, the Midshipmen were last in passing offense.
Bob Chesney leads the Holy Cross Crusaders, who finished tied for second in the Patriot League. The Crusaders managed to win their last four games after having been 1-5 to start. Chesney has high expectations after having been selected second behind Colgate to win the Patriot League. However, there are certainly questions on both sides of the ball for the Crusaders after seeing multiple starters graduate. Senior Domenic Cozier (RB) is their most explosive playmaker and is considered a lock to make the All-Patriot League team this year.
I fully expect Navy to rebound after a down year. The offense should have it easy against an inexperienced Crusader defense. Not to mention, the Crusaders lost six or seven starters on defense. The triple-option could also be an issue for the Crusaders as their strength lies with their secondary.
Pick: Navy (-21.5)
SMU @ Arkansas St. (-2.5), 7pm EDT on ESPN+
The SMU Mustangs finally filled the need at quarterback this offseason. Former Texas Longhorn, Shane Buechele (RS Jr.) will be the starter which can be considered a relief. Buechele threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his first year with the Longhorns but went into a timeshare with Heisman candidate Sam Ellinger (Jr.) this past season. Outside of Buechele, the Mustangs have very talented receivers in James Proche (Sr.) and Reggie Roberson Jr. (Jr.) who managed to get nearly 2,000 yards combined.
The Red Wolves are exploring the quarterback room after losing superstar Justice Hansen. Logan Booner (RS Jr.) will get the starting nod tonight but don’t be surprised if the Red Wolves try out other options. Booner will likely be throwing to his security blanket Kirk Merritt (Sr.), who was the only 1,000-yard receiver in the Sun Belt Conference. Overall, the Red Wolves are sound on both sides on the ball with rankings within the top fifty (30.3 PPG & 25.6 OPG). The debate is really can Booner be the guy at quarterback?
I'm taking the Red Wolves as SMU's defense hasn't shown much consistency in nearly half a decade.
Pick: Arkansas St. (-2.5)
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