Fighting Illini a ‘juicy’ pick to cover

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel might want to hand out name tags during the first few weeks of this season.

Pinkel is seeing a whole lot of new faces, as the Tigers suffered major personnel losses and also will be breaking in new coordinators on offense and defense.

With border rivals Illinois and Missouri headed in opposite directions this year, the Fighting Illini should win and cover as a 61/2-point favorite in today’s game at St. Louis.

Missouri was perhaps the most overhyped team in college football last season and cratered under the weight of those expectations. The Tigers lost most of the key pieces from that team, including quarterback Chase Daniel and three receivers who combined for 30 touchdown catches and 3,000 receiving yards.

Missouri’s new quarterback, sophomore Blaine Gabbert, threw 13 passes last year as Daniel’s backup and only played a handful of games as a high school senior due to injury.

On the other side, Illinois has double revenge in this bitter rivalry and, perhaps more important, features a fourth-year starting quarterback in the multitalented Juice Williams, who gets to choose from a bevy of talented receivers.

Arrelious Benn, who is included on most preseason All-America teams, had 67 catches for 1,055 yards last year and heads the Illini’s receiving corps.

Missouri gave up at least 304 passing yards in each of its final four games of 2008. Williams passed for 451 yards in last year’s 52-42 loss to the Tigers, and he could approach that total again.

Four more plays for today (home team in CAPS):

OHIO (+4) over Connecticut: Ohio of the Mid-American Conference appears to have the motivational edge as its Big East opponent, Connecticut, has appeared in consecutive bowl games and has bigger games on deck against North Carolina and Baylor. Bobcats coach Frank Solich is 6-3 against the spread as a home underdog.

Minnesota (-7) over SYRACUSE: The Orange feature a former college basketball point guard who has not played football in five years at quarterback (Greg Paulus) and a new coach (Doug Marrone) who has spent the past seven seasons as an assistant in the NFL.

Minnesota has made significant strides under third-year coach Tim Brewster and features veteran quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker. The Gophers are 11-4 as an away favorite in the past seven seasons.

Louisiana Tech (+131/2) over AUBURN: Gene Chizik’s first game as Auburn’s coach comes against a veteran Louisiana Tech squad returning 16 starters and featuring 17 seniors and juniors in its starting lineup.

Quarterback Ross Jenkins returns for Louisiana Tech, as do the Bulldogs’ top rusher, top receiver, entire starting offensive line and five members of the defensive front seven.

NEBRASKA (-22) over Florida Atlantic: Sun Belt Conference member Florida Atlantic has come up short in similar spots in recent years, failing to cover the spread in its last 10 tries as an away underdog of 20 or more points.

The Owls allowed more than 200 yards rushing to seven of their first 11 opponents last year, and Nebraska tailback Roy Helu will have a field day.

Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone of Vegassportsauthority.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal this season.

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