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September 2, 2011

Keep an eye on: What our guys are watching

Each week, Rivals.com's college football experts give fans things to keep an eye on over the course of the weekend. Here are some key things to watch this weekend.

WEEK 1 UPSET PICKS
We're back with another season of trying to predict the big upsets - or, at the least, pick teams that will cover the spread. The lone stipulation for our writers in choosing a game is that the spread has to be at least 7.5 points.
Olin Buchanan
Miami of Ohio plus-19 at Missouri. Missouri spanked Miami 51-13 last season, so you may expect the Redhawks to assume the position and say, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?" But don't be surprised if they put up a much tougher fight this time. Miami figures to be a decent team with a solid quarterback and a good defense. Missouri has a new quarterback in James Franklin and injury issues along the offensive line and in the secondary. The Tigers cannot take another easy win for granted.
Tom Dienhart
Army plus-10 at Northern Illinois. Not only will Northern Illinois have trouble covering, the Huskies may get beat. This is a strong Black Knights team that returns six of its top seven rushers and is coming off its first bowl victory since 1985 and first winning season since 1996. Coach Rich Ellerson's program is on the rise in Year 3 under his stewardship. If Army's newly tweaked defense returns dividends and the offense controls the ball and the clock with a veteran quarterback, the Black Knights may leave DeKalb with a win.
David Fox
USF plus-10 at Notre Dame. Notre Dame sure looks as if it is ready to rejoin the national elite after its run at the end of last season. But I wonder if the team that lost to Tulsa still is lingering somewhere. As for USF, anyone who thinks the Bulls can't give Notre Dame difficulty hasn't been paying close attention. The Bulls have been a mid-level Big East team the past few seasons, but they've been able to go on the road and score upsets - over Auburn in 2007, over Florida State in 2009, over Miami in 2010. USF's defense is stout, and the offense should be improved from last season. The Bulls are healthier, more experienced and have better depth than a year ago. I'd be surprised if this game isn't competitive late.
Mike Huguenin
Middle Tennessee plus-18 at Purdue. This has more to do with Purdue than with MTSU. Because of injuries, Purdue is down to its third-string quarterback, junior Caleb TerBush - who has played in one game in his career. I also wonder about Purdue's defense without star DE Ryan Kerrigan; it was shoddy with him, so what's it going to be like without him?
Steve Megargee
USF plus-10 at Notre Dame. I understand why Notre Dame is favored but that spread seems a bit inflated. USF's B.J. Daniels is no Denard Robinson, but the Irish's inability to slow Robinson last season revealed their vulnerabilities against mobile quarterbacks. USF also historically is at its best when it's facing a big-name program on the road. The Bulls won at Florida State in 2009 and at Miami last season. I don't think the Bulls win this game, but they should at least stay within single digits in Skip Holtz's return to his alma mater.
Last Season Totals
For the season, 32 of 65 picks covered the spread and 13 won outright.

Oklahoma's linebackers. I'll be keeping an especially close watch on Oklahoma sophomore Tom Wort. The Sooners were vulnerable to the run last season and must improve in that area to have a legitimate shot at the national championship. Wort is the Sooners' best player at middle linebacker after the offseason death of Austin Box. Wort must raise his level of play. Oklahoma won't lose to Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane have shown the ability to run the ball in the past. If Tulsa can consistently run on the Sooners, it definitely will raise red flags. - OLIN BUCHANAN

Michigan's defense. One word describes Michigan's defense the past three seasons: awful. How will it look in Week 1? New coordinator Greg Mattison was a great hire by Brady Hoke. But Mattison's new unit ranked last in the Big Ten in total defense (450.8 ypg), scoring defense (35.2 ppg) and pass defense (261.9 ypg) last season. Mattison has scrapped the unconventional 3-3-5 set and installed a 4-3. A visit from Western Michigan in the opener will be a good test. The Broncos have a strong passing attack led by underrated QB Alex Carder, who tossed 30 touchdown passes in 2010. How will Michigan's still-developing secondary look? Are there any pass rushers in the house? Can the much-maligned linebackers make plays? Bigger tests loom for the Michigan defense, but it needs a strong showing against a solid MAC offense to gain some confidence and momentum.

- TOM DIENHART

Fresno State QB Derek Carr. Carr's debut has been overlooked. His ascendance to starting quarterback at Fresno State has been anticipated for two years. Now, we'll find out if he can take Fresno State to similar heights as his brother, David. Fresno State has a good chance to upset California in the opener and a good chance to win the WAC in its final season, but much of that rides on Carr. I'm interested in seeing what Carr brings to the Bulldogs.

- DAVID FOX

Georgia's rushing attack. Georgia's Aaron Murray is the best quarterback in the SEC, but every other element of the offense is a question. Can a rebuilt line protect Murray and open holes for the rushing attack? Who will be running through those holes, assuming they are there? And who will be the go-to receiver? Georgia's highest priority is finding a tailback it can count on, and it looks as if true freshman Isaiah Crowell will get every opportunity to be that guy. His first college action is going to come against a good Boise State defensive front seven. Crowell and Richard Samuel must be productive - say, 130 or so yards - or Georgia will be too one-dimensional to beat the Broncos.

- MIKE HUGUENIN

LSU's quarterback situation. It's tempting to downplay the suspension that will keep incumbent starter Jordan Jefferson from playing in LSU's opener against Oregon. Jefferson often seemed to hinder LSU's offense as much as he helped it last season, and the Tigers have a tested backup in Jarrett Lee. Then again, how beneficial is it to have an experienced reserve when so many of his experiences were unpleasant? Lee has had some nice moments as a starter, but he's best remembered for throwing seven interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in 2008. LSU isn't a team that leans heavily on its quarterback, but the Tigers at least require competence at the position. If Lee avoids turnovers and LSU beats Oregon, the Tigers have a great chance at contending for a national title, with or without Jefferson. But if LSU falls to Oregon and Lee shows that he isn't up to the job, this could be a long season on the bayou.

- STEVE MEGARGEE

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