The long wait for football will finally end Saturday in Dublin, Ireland, where Notre Dame will take on Navy at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. You can check out my preview and against-the-spread prediction on the side for the Fighting Irish and Midshipmen right here.
Let’s take a quick look at three other games on the Week Zero slate.
**UTEP at Jacksonville State**
-Along with Sam Houston, Jacksonville St. is making the jump up to FBS from the FCS level and joining Conference USA. The Bearkats and Gamecocks’ arrival now gives us 133 total FBS schools.
-For those unfamiliar with the school, Jacksonville St. is in Alabama, not Florida. More specifically, it’s 37 miles Northeast of Talladega Superpeedway and 72 miles Northeast of Birmingham.
-As it turns out, Rich Rodriguez did make it to Alabama. However, he’s not in Tuscaloosa, where he was once offered the head-coaching gig and verbally accepted it, only to change his mind the next morning in early December of 2006. It is one of the more baffling decisions in college football history. Rodriguez elected to stay at West Virginia, sparking a series of events that forever altered the course of college football history. When Rodriguez turned down the Crimson Tide, then-Alabama AD Mal Moore decided to wait until the end of the NFL season ended to make Nick Saban, who wasn’t going to leave the Miami Dolphins with several games remaining, turn him down again. Of course, Saban decided to return to college and the rest is history.
-As for Rodriguez, who seemed destined to remain at his alma mater well into the future after turning down one of the nation’s premier gigs, he ended up leaving for Michigan a year later. That was a piss-poor fit from the get-go, and Rodriguez was fired after a disastrous three-year tenure in which he went 15-22 overall and limped to an abysmal 6-18 record in Big Ten play. He was hired at Arizona in 2012 and enjoyed tremendous success in his first three seasons, including a 10-4 campaign and trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. But that tenure also went sour, and Rodriguez was fired on Jan. 2 of 2018 after admitting to an extramarital affair. He denied accusations of sexual misconduct that were alleged in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former administrative assistant. The lawsuit was dismissed 18 months later.
-Since then, Rodriguez spent one season as offensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2019 and one year as OC at ULM in 2021. He accepted the HC gig at Jacksonville St. on Nov. 30 of 2021. In Year 1, the Gamecocks went 9-2 straight up and 7-4 ATS. They return nine starters on offense and seven on defense.
-Jacksonville St. faced only one FBS foe last year, losing 54-17 at Tulsa as a 10-point road underdog. However, in Week 2 of the 2021 season, the Gamecocks won 20-17 at FSU as 26.5-point road underdogs on a walk-off touchdown pass on the game’s final play.
-Senior quarterback Zion Webb has been with the program since 2018. He started 12 games in the 2020-21 season (when some FCS games were played in the spring due to the pandemic) and was a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference selection. He threw for 1,777 yards and 13 TDs, in addition to rushing for 399 yards and five TDs. In 2022, Webb completed 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,737 yards with a mediocre 10/9 TD-INT ratio. He ran for 647 yards and 13 TDs, though, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. On Tuesday, Rodriguez said Webb will likely start, but Logan Smothers might also get playing time. Smothers is a transfer from Nebraska.
-Jacksonville St. is three-deep at the running back position. Anwar Lewis ran for a team-best 818 yards and eight TDs in 2022, averaging 7.1 YPC. He also had 13 catches for 127 yards and one TD. Lewis practiced fully this past Sunday as he returned from an injury, but he’s not listed on this week’s depth chart. His progress was reportedly going to be monitored this week, but bettors can’t count on him playing for sure. Rodriguez added senior RB Malik Jackson, who transferred from ULM after leading the Warhawks in rushing yards (507) and rushing TDs (six) last season. The Gamecocks also have RB Ron Higgins, a junior who had 461 rushing yards, four TDs and a 7.7 YPC average in 2022.
-Jacksonville St. won eight of its nine games by 16 points or more last season. The Gamecocks, who took their only other loss at home vs. Southeast Louisiana (31-14), played only one one-possession game, beating Kennesaw 35-28 at home in overtime as 10.5-point favorites.
-UTEP finished last season with a 5-7 record both SU and ATS. The Miners bring back eight starters on offense and seven on defense. They finished 2022 +385 in net yardage but -5 in turnover margin.
-Sixth-year senior quarterback Gavin Hardison returns. He completed 52.1 percent of his passes last season for 2,044 yards with an 11/8 TD-INT ratio. In 2021, Hardison led UTEP to a 7-6 SU record and an 8-5 ATS mark by throwing for a career-high 3,218 yards with an 18/13 TD-INT ratio. In 32 career games, Hardison has thrown for 7,017 yards, the third-most in program history. He has connected on just 53.3 percent of his passes, though, with a mediocre 35/26 TD-INT ratio. Hardison isn’t much of a threat with his legs, with -7 career rushing yards and just one rushing TD.
-Hardison has his favorite target back in senior WR Tyrin Smith, a third-team All-Conference-USA selection last year. Smith had 71 receptions for 1,039 yards and seven TDs. Another offensive weapon for the Miners is RB Deion Hankins, who garnered second-team All-C-USA honors in 2022 when he had 701 rushing yards, three TDs and a 5.0 YPC average.
-As of early Thursday, most books had UTEP installed as a one-point road favorite with a total of 54. Circa had this total as low as 51 on Aug. 8.
-Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Eastern on the CBS Sports Network.
**UMass at New Mexico St.**
-As of Monday, most betting shops had New Mexico St. listed at -7.5 with a total of 45. However, most spots moved the Aggies to -6.5 early Tuesday afternoon. As of Thursday morning, the Minutemen were +200 to +215 on the money line. For first-half bets, the Aggies were -4.5 with a total of 22.5 in the first half.
-From 2018-2021, New Mexico St. went 3-9, 2-10, 1-1 (2020 during pandemic) and 2-10. But in the first season of the Jerry Kill Era in 2022, the Aggies made a five-win jump by producing a 7-6 SU record to go with an 8-5 ATS mark. Kill is the former HC at Saginaw Valley, Emporia St., Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota.
-After losing its first four games and falling to 1-5 when it lost 21-7 vs. FIU as a 14.5-point home ‘chalk,’ New Mexico St. won five of its last six regular-season games – with the lone defeat coming at Missouri – to get bowl eligible, including a 49-14 win at Liberty as a 24.5-point road underdog. The Aggies captured a 24-19 win over Bowling Green as 3.5-point underdogs at the Quick Lane Bowl.
-Kill’s team brings back nine starters on offense and four on defense. NMSU finished 2022 -74 in net yardage and -4 in turnover margin. The Aggies’ defense allowed an average of 40.4 points per game in 2021, but they shaved more than 16 points off of that number under Kill in 2022 (23.9 PPG). NMSU lost its top four tacklers, however, and five of its top six.
-Junior QB Diego Pavia is back after completing 101-of-190 throws (53.2%) for 1,450 yards with a 13/6 TD-INT ratio. Pavia is a dangerous dual-threat signal caller, rushing for 508 yards and six TDs with a 5.5 YPC average. He has seven of his top eight pass catchers back and all of his top RBs returned.
-Junior RB Star Thomas had a team-high 520 rushing yards, five TDs and a 4.8 YPC average. He also had 12 catches for 151 yards and three TDs. RB Jamoni Jones had three more carries (111) than Thomas (108), producing 385 yards and six TDs with a 3.5 YPC average.
-New Mexico St. has compiled an 8-2 spread record in its last 10 games as home favorite dating back to 2019.
-When these teams met in Amherst last year, NMSU won 23-13 as a 1.5-point road favorite. The 36 combined points slithered ‘under’ the 39-point total. The Aggies outscored the Minutemen 13-0 in the second half, with Pavia’s 27-yard TD pass to Terrell Warner with 3:42 remaining essentially putting the game away. Pavia had a team-high 56 rushing yards on eight attempts, and he completed 7-of-12 passes for 194 yards and two TDs without an interception.
-UMass was an absolute disaster in Year 1 under HC Don Brown, finishing 1-11 SU and 5-7 ATS. The Minutemen picked up their only win as 2.5-point home underdogs, beating FCS foe Stony Brook by a 20-3 count. Nine of UMass’s 11 losses were by double-digit margins and eight came by at least 17 points.
-UMass has seven starters back on offense and eight on defense. Brown’s team added 21 transfers from out of the portal, including 14 three-star players (per the 247Sports Composite) and 12 from Power-Five programs.
-I’m taking New Mexico St. -6.5 for one-half unit. I think the Aggies are an ideal teaser team as well, bumping them down to just needing to win outright at home. Bettors who are eyeing another team to tease can pair it with NMSU whether that’s this Saturday or in Week 1.
-Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
**Ohio at San Diego St.**
-As of early Thursday, most books had San Diego St. installed as a two-point home favorite with a total of 49. The Bobcats were +110 to win outright.
-Former Ohio HC Frank Solich retired abruptly due to health concerns in the summer of 2021. He went out as the MAC’s all-time leader in career wins with 115. Under new HC Tim Albin, the Bobcats struggled to a 3-9 SU record and a 5-7 ATS ledger in 2021. But in 2022, Ohio compiled a 10-4 record both SU and ATS, capping the year with a 30-27 overtime win over Wyoming as a 2.5-point favorite in the Arizona Bowl. CJ Harris threw a 10-yard TD pass to Tyler Foster in OT to cash tickets for Big Cat, who was on the call in the booth for Barstool Sports celebrating a winner on the Bobcats. Harris threw for 184 yards and two TDs without an interception, and he also had 52 rushing yards on 10 attempts. RB Sieh Bangura ran for a team-high 138 yards and one TD on 25 carries. WR Jacoby Jones had three receptions for 44 yards and one TD.
-Harris was subbing for QB Kurtis Rourke, who tore his ACL in a 32-18 win at Ball St. in late November. Rourke, who started the Bobcats’ first 11 games, was named the MAC Offensive Player of the Year after connecting on 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,256 yards with a 25/4 TD-INT ratio. Rourke added 249 rushing yards and four TDs. Rourke has fully recovered and was named Saturday’s starter earlier this week.
-Ohio returns nine starters on offense and six on defense. The Bobcats scored at a 31.8 PPG clip last year, while they limited opponents to an average of 28.3 PPG. They posted a 4-1 record in five one-possession games.
-In Brady Hoke’s second tour of duty as HC, San Diego St. went 12-2 SU in his second season two years ago. However, the Aztecs finished a disappointing 7-6 SU and 5-8 ATS in 2022. They lost back-to-back games to close the season, falling 13-3 to Air Force as two-point home underdogs before dropping a 25-23 decision to Middle Tennessee as 6.5-point ‘chalk’ at the Hawaii Bowl.
-San Diego St. finished 2022 +194 in net yardage and -4 in turnover margin. The Aztecs won three of five one-possession contests.
-San Diego St. brings back six starters from a defense that gave up an average of 20.5 PPG. The Aztecs were still solid defensively in spite of a pedestrian offense that scored merely 21.5 PPG. Their offense returns six starters, too.
-San Diego St. is 14-5 SU and 9-10 ATS at home during Hoke’s second tenure that’s heading into its fourth season. The Aztecs have struggled as home favorites, though, limping to a 5-8 ATS mark in 13 such spots. In fact, the Aztecs have failed to cover in six straight games as home ‘chalk.’
-Phil Steele’s National Unit Rankings have San Diego St. at #5 on special teams, #35 in the secondary and #53 at the linebacker position. Senior Jack Browning is both the kicker and punter for the Aztecs. He was a first-team All-MWC selection as a punter last season, averaging 46.1 yards per punt (and 41.9 net) while pinning 28 of 68 punts inside opponents’ own 20. Browning was fourth-team All-MWC as a kicker after burying all 30 extra-point attempts and 20-of-25 field-goal attempts with a long of 52 yards.
-San Diego St. lost only 16 lettermen and returned 43. According to the 247Sports Composite, the Aztecs had the nation’s #75 overall recruiting class and #70 transfer-specific group in 2023. They brought in six transfers, including five from Power-Five programs.
-One of those transfer imports is LB Cody Moon, who was a third-team All-MWC selection in 2022 when he was at New Mexico. Moon recorded 105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes broken up, two QB Hurries and one forced fumble for the Lobos last season. San Diego St. offensive guard Cade Bennett, TE Mark Redman, Browning (as a punter) and Moon are preseason first-team All-MWC picks in Steele’s mag. Redman had 21 catches for 233 yards and two TDs last year.
-San Diego St. starting QB Jalen Mayden is back for his junior campaign. He started eight of 13 games last year, completing 59.5 percent of his throws for 2,030 yards with a shaky 12/10 TD-INT ratio. Mayden added 231 rushing yards and three TDs.
-Steele’s National Unit Rankings have Ohio at #36 at QB, #45 at WR, #51 at RB, #68 on the o-line and #44 at LB. Steele lists five Bobcats among his preseason All-MAC first-team selections: QB Rourke, RB Bangura, WR Sam Wiglusz, DE Vonnie Watkins and LB Keye Thompson. Bangura had 1,078 rushing yards, 13 TDs and a 4.9 YPC average in 2022. He also had 27 catches for 226 yards and two TDs. Like Rourke, Wiglusz was a first-team All-MAC choice last year when he had 73 receptions for 877 yards and 11 TDs. Thompson was a third-team All-MAC pick last season when he recorded a team-high 96 tackles to go with 6.5 TFL’s, five QB Hurries, three PBU, 1.5 sacks and one interception. Watkins had 46 tackles, 14 TFL’s, nine QB Hurries, 4.5 sacks and two PBU in 2022.
-Ohio’s Jones, who had 45 receptions for 776 yards and six TDs last year, is a preseason second-team All-MAC choice along with LB Bryce Houston, who finished 2022 with 76 tackles, eight TFL’s, eight QB Hurries, 5.5 sacks, two PBU and one forced fumble.
-Fox Sports 1 will provide the broadcast at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.