The 2023 college football season is here as Week 0 is upon us. There will be just over a handful of games on Saturday, August 26 before the season ramps up with 11 games on Thursday, August 31, and then the first full Saturday of action on September 2. Let’s look at five games on the slate for August 26, highlighted by two national college football powers, Notre Dame and USC, which will begin their pursuit of the College Football Playoff in the last year of the four-team event. Next year, in 2024, the playoff becomes a 12-team extravaganza. This is the last year in which making the playoff will be especially difficult for every college football team.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Navy Midshipmen (In Dublin, Ireland)
Odds: Notre Dame -20.5 at BetUs
The Fighting Irish begin a new season with quarterback Sam Hartman, the transfer from Wake Forest who has put up huge numbers and gives the Irish a significant quarterback upgrade from previous seasons. The concern for Notre Dame is that Hartman won’t have elite receivers to throw to. Who will become the fast, field-shifting wide receiver who can get open on deep passes and extend an opposing secondary? Navy is entering its first full season after the firing of coach Ken Niumatalolo, who had been with the program for the previous two decades.
The transition for Navy might be more difficult than a lot of people appreciate. If you look at Navy’s season openers in recent years, the Midshipmen have been torn to pieces. Playing Notre Dame in the middle of the season might have given Navy more of a chance here, but playing Notre Dame in Week Zero in late August probably hurts Navy’s preparation and overall outlook. Take Notre Dame.
Pick: Notre Dame -20.5
Ohio Bobcats at San Diego State Aztecs
Odds: San Diego State -3 at Bovada
San Diego State had a very choppy and difficult season in 2022, going 7-6 in a Mountain West Conference which was up for grabs and did not feature a single dominant team. The Aztecs’ offense profoundly struggled throughout the year. The Aztecs failed to generate a consistent rhythm on offense. They couldn’t blow opponents away at the line of scrimmage, and they couldn’t make plays down the field. Even against opponents which did not have particularly strong defenses, such as the Arizona Wildcats, San Diego State couldn’t score in bunches and couldn’t make plays with any regularity.
Several opponents for SDSU in 2022 should have been easily handled, but the Aztecs did very few things easily. It was a season in which the pieces on the roster didn’t come together and create a natural fit. San Diego State had an excellent 2021 season in which it went 12-2 and was the best team in the Mountain West over the course of the regular season (before losing to Utah State in the MWC Championship Game), so the Aztecs didn’t just regress from 2021 last year; they regressed quite sharply.
The point spread here is small precisely because the Aztecs were not very convincing in 2022. That’s understandable and ultimately a reasonable reaction to where the Aztecs are as a program. However, one needs to stop and consider a larger context in which this game is played. It has less to do with Ohio – which had a fine 2022 season and reached the Mid-American Conference Championship Game – and a lot more to do with San Diego State as a school and as an athletic program.
San Diego State had hoped to join the Pac-12. The Aztecs sent a letter to the Mountain West Conference on June 13 in which they outwardly expressed their intent to leave the conference. They were begging the Pac-12 to take them, but it never happened. Several weeks later, the Pac-12 basically splintered and came apart, with several schools going to the Big 12, Oregon and Washington going to the Big Ten, and maybe Stanford and California moving to the ACC, something which hasn’t yet happened but is reportedly close to happening. San Diego State athletes – in football and other sports – thought they were about to join the Pac-12. Now they are seemingly locked outside the gates of the Power Five conferences and appear to be consigned to long-term second-class status in college sports.
San Diego State players are going to be uniquely motivated for this game in ways the Ohio players simply won’t be. It’s not Ohio’s fault or the Bobcats’ deficiency. It is merely an unexpected set of circumstances which should play into the Aztecs’ hands. Having a special form of motivation is a unique intangible advantage, and definitely something to consider as a bettor in a game where the teams don’t seem to be separated by a whole lot in terms of overall talent.
Pick: San Diego State -3
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Vanderbilt Commodores
Odds: Vanderbilt -17.5 at BetOnline
The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and Vanderbilt Commodores played in the 2022 season opener on the islands of Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors grabbed an early 7-0 lead and then got the ball back. Would Hawaii pull an upset? The dream very quickly died. A few Hawaii mistakes turned the game around in the first quarter. Vanderbilt scored 14 points in a heartbeat. The Commodores took a 21-10 lead to the locker room at halftime. They then unloaded for 35 points in the third quarter. The final score was 63-10. Vanderbilt isn’t 53 points better than Hawaii this year, but it doesn’t have to be. If it is merely 24 or 31 points better, it will cover the spread.
Vanderbilt made significant improvements last season under coach Clark Lea, who had been the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame for a College Football Playoff-caliber team under former ND coach Brian Kelly. Lea left his place of prosperity and prominence at Notre Dame to take on the rebuilding job at Vanderbilt. Many people questioned if Lea was up for the job.
After the 2022 season, there are a lot more believers in the room. Vanderbilt snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak last year. The Commodores won on the road against Kentucky, which has been a very successful program the past several years. Vanderbilt then went on and scored a second SEC victory, beating the Florida Gators and quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was a top-five pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Vanderbilt has become a lot better as a program. It is no longer the doormat it was when Clark Lea took over the program. If last year’s Vanderbilt team – which began the season against Hawaii not knowing how good it was – could thump Hawaii by 53 points on the road. This year’s Vanderbilt team should be able to beat Hawaii by at least 25 to 30 points at home.
Pick: Vanderbilt -17.5
San Jose State Spartans at USC Trojans
Odds: USC -30.5 at MyBookie
Caleb Williams, the quarterback of the USC Trojans, will try to become just the second person in the history of the Heisman Trophy to win the prestigious award twice. The only man to do it was Archie Griffin of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 1974 and 1975 seasons. Caleb Williams will certainly have a chance to win the award, given how good he is and how potent the whole USC offense is expected to be, with a veteran offensive line and proven wide receivers and running backs under head coach Lincoln Riley.
In the college football business, Riley is acknowledged as one of the best quarterback teachers and play designers around. USC will have solutions for nearly every situation on offense. It’s on defense where the Trojans face a ton of questions. As the season moves along, USC will be tested a lot more fiercely on that side of the ball. However, in a season opener against San Jose State – which was not particularly good last season (not terrible, but nothing special) – you are not going to see a situation in which USC’s defense is going to be severely challenged. The Trojans will give up some points, but they are going to score a ton of them.
As long as USC does not give up 30 or more points, the Trojans should be able to cover. They are definitely going to score more than 50 points, and they are going to make a run at 60.
Pick: USC -30.5
Florida International Golden Panthers at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Odds: Louisiana Tech -11.5 at BetOnline
The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs are coached by Sonny Cumbie, who was previously the offensive coordinator for some successful TCU teams. Cumbie was also offensive coordinator at Texas Tech before he got his first chance at a head coaching job with Louisiana Tech. He was only 3-9 last season in his first campaign, but Year 2 should be a lot better for Cumbie, who has been able to make adjustments to the Bulldogs and find his bearings. He has upgraded the roster and should have Louisiana Tech in better position to compete in Conference USA. Florida International is expected to win only three to four games this coming season. Tech has more weapons and is playing at home. The Bulldogs should be able to win this game relatively comfortably.