As a senior in high school in the spring of 2000, I decided to attend the University of Michigan. Earlier that fall, my mom surprised me with tickets to see a quarterback named Tom Brady lead the Wolverines against Notre Dame in Ann Arbor. Michigan won with a late fourth-quarter drive, and I was officially enamored.
Coming off the 1997 national championship, I thought I was signed up for a lifetime of rooting — this was before I decided to become a sportswriter! — for a true title contender.
For the most part, 18-year-old me has been very wrong. Expectations have not been kind to Michigan the last two-plus decades — you may recall the Wolverines were ranked No. 5 when they lost to Appalachian State — and overall I just know from experience that when Michigan is supposed to do something great, that makes it less likely it will accomplish that something.
Which brings me to my point: my annual picks of every “Power Five” game now have to be made during a year in which the Wolverines are ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls, certainly the highest positioning since I’ve followed the program closely. Michigan is coming off two straight emphatic wins over Ohio State and returns its starting quarterback, dominant tailback tandem and key cornerstone leaders up and down the depth chart. I know Michigan is going to be very good, but I also know too much about how wrong it can go when it’s supposed to be right.
My friend Sam and I do these picks together each year for fun, and I’ve never been in this spot before with my alma mater. Do I take the plunge or rain on the parade? Read on to see what we do with Michigan, plus: Can Georgia three-peat? Will Caleb Williams lead USC to its first playoff appearance? How will UCLA fare in Chip Kelly’s first season without Dorian Thompson-Robinson?
ACC game picks and predictions
After missing two straight playoffs due to a broken offense, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney finally went outside the program and brought in Garrett Riley, Lincoln younger brother who helped Texas Christian to the national title game, as his offensive coordinator. Riley is sure to have more autonomy calling plays under Swinney than he did under Sonny Dykes, a creative play caller himself, and he’ll get to enjoy a talented young quarterback in Cade Klubnik.
But for the first time in ages, the Tigers have a legitimate challenger in the ACC with Mike Norvell’s ascendant Florida State Seminoles. Florida State’s offense should be more explosive than Clemson’s with quarterback Jordan Travis’ dual-threat capability and the skill players around him. The Seminoles have a tough start with Louisiana State in Orlando and a trip to Clemson in the first four games. They’ll split those — we think the likelier loss is at Death Valley — and run the table the rest of the way and set up a rematch with Clemson. Florida State will avenge its lone defeat and back up its recent realignment posturing that it is above the rest of the ACC.
ACC championship game
Florida State (12-1) defeats Clemson (10-3)
Projected ACC standings
Big Ten game picks and predictions
Finally, we’re back to my Michigan conundrum. Here’s where I’ve settled: The Wolverines will start 11-0, proving themselves on the road at Penn State, and will be ranked No. 1 in the nation entering “The Game” with Ohio State.
Michigan is the more complete team this year, but the pressure will be otherworldly, and the Wolverines traditionally don’t perform their best in that scenario (see last year’s game against TCU). Jim Harbaugh will coach not to lose and clam up just enough to let Ohio State’s amazing skill talent pull the upset late.
But Michigan, at 8-1, still wins the Big Ten due to the Buckeyes losing at Wisconsin and to Penn State. The Wolverines have a new lease on life with their postseason dreams still there and put down the Badgers, who far surpass expectations in Luke Fickell’s first season.
Big Ten championship game
Big Ten championship game
Michigan (12-1) defeats Wisconsin (9-4)
Projected Big Ten standings
Big 12 game picks and predictions
This is the long-awaited last rodeo for Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, and the schools won’t expect an amicable parting. Heck, just last week, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was making a visit to Texas Tech and encouraged the Red Raiders to take care of the Longhorns on Thanksgiving weekend. Texas has to toughen up and embrace the hate.
We like Texas, but not enough to pick it to win at Alabama. Nick Saban may have resuscitated Steve Sarkisian’s career, but that will be the end of his humanitarian spirit. The Longhorns will need to win all their Big 12 games to make the playoff, and they’ll slip up once somewhere — our bet is at TCU. The Horned Frogs will be in the mix again, but they led a charmed life last season and won’t make back-to-back playoff appearances.
Texas Tech, one of our surprise teams, will beat TCU and Kansas State in Lubbock. But Yormark won’t get his wish. The Longhorns will beat the Red Raiders two weeks in a row to exit the Big 12 with the swagger that’s eluded them for so long.
Big 12 championship game
Texas (11-2) defeats Texas Tech (10-3)
Projected Big 12 standings
Pac-12 game picks and predictions
This was supposed to be the USC and UCLA hate tour, but now that they’re joined by six others in leaving the Pac-12, it’s actually kind of sad. But the Trojans and Bruins started it — will one of them finish it as champions? I’ve already predicted that USC will make its first playoff appearance in Lincoln Riley’s second season, and I’ll stand by that prediction even after seeing the defense struggle to get off the field against San Jose State.
The Trojans are going to drop one somewhere, and we think it will come in their first true test of the season in South Bend. It just feels like something whacky will happen, but that should sharpen USC’s mettle for a very difficult stretch run. The Trojans will beat Utah and Washington at the Coliseum and win a wild one in Eugene. Oregon State’s schedule sets up well, and we couldn’t ignore the possibility of a “Pac-4” team making a run at the crown. Caleb Williams will hold off the national darling Beavers.
Pac-12 championship game
USC (12-1) defeats Oregon State (10-3)
Projected Pac-12 standings
SEC game picks and predictions
Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t stop thinking about it: No. 1 Georgia at one-loss Tennessee on Nov. 18, a night game at Neyland Stadium for the SEC East crown and a chance to make the playoff. That would be one of the most incredible atmospheres I can recall, even possibly surpassing the Tennessee-Alabama game last year at Neyland.
Are the Vols ready to put down Kirby Smart’s budding dynasty? Here’s the yes argument: Georgia will have been relatively untested for so late in the year. Its schedule is a cake walk, and Smart will be able to protect young quarterback Carson Beck throughout the year. I’m not sure we will know much about Beck 10 games into the season.
Also, Todd Monken, Georgia’s brilliant offensive coordinator who turned Stetson Bennett IV into a draft pick, is gone to the Baltimore Ravens. I just can’t see Georgia making it through unscathed, and Tennessee will have a capable offense and should have an improved defense.
In the SEC West, Alabama will lose a couple of games in the first half of the season while it finds itself offensively with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees. LSU will lose in Tuscaloosa but win the West. Tennessee will be back where it was last season — controlling its own destiny for a playoff berth — but come up just short yet again in the SEC title game against the Tigers.
Let the playoff debate begin: one-loss Georgia or two-loss SEC champ LSU?
SEC championship game
LSU (11-2) defeats Tennessee (11-2)
Projected SEC standings
As one-loss Power Five champions, Florida State, Michigan and USC are in the playoff. The SEC will be represented, and it will come down to Georgia, 11-1, and LSU, 11-2. Here, the Bulldogs’ soft schedule will come back to bite them. Their best win would be, what, South Carolina? Mississippi? Florida? LSU will get the benefit of the doubt with losses to the playoff’s No. 1 seed, Florida State, and Alabama on the road.
In the Sugar Bowl, Florida State and LSU will square off in a rematch that will be their third game in the last two seasons. The Seminoles have won the first two, and LSU will get its revenge in the one that matters most playing in New Orleans’ Superdome, advancing to the CFP championship.
In the Rose Bowl, Michigan and USC will play one that will please all the purists — until they remember that it’s really just a Big Ten preview for years to come. The Wolverines will be playing with a chip on their shoulder for all those past Michigan teams that fell at the hands of the Trojans and win their first CFP semifinal after losing their last two. Michigan simply has a much more balanced team than USC, which is still trying to figure out the whole defense thing.
In the CFP championship game in Houston, the Wolverines will break through and win their first national championship in more than 25 years.
Believe me when I say it is hard to write those words. But, frankly, how often do you get to pick your alma mater to win a national championship and it actually be a realistic projection? My assumption is I will never do it again.
LSU defeats Florida State
Michigan defeats USC
Michigan defeats LSU