For many college teams, the nonconference schedule is otherwise known as the woodshed season. It’s about lining up weak opponents and pounding them into submission.
But the soft part of the schedule is drawing to a close, and one of the more intriguing conference matchups this week has Vanderbilt, a surprising 3-0 team, hitting the Southeastern Conference road to take on Mississippi and first-year coach Houston Nutt.
The Rebels easily could be 3-0, as well, but lost 30-28 at Wake Forest on a field goal on the final play. Aside from a new coach, Ole Miss has a new quarterback in Jevan Snead, a talented transfer from Texas.
The Rebels should be able to control the Commodores’ ground game and make Chris Nickson beat them through the air. He has passed for 91, 90 and 71 yards in the first three games.
Go with Mississippi as a 7-point favorite.
Other selections for today’s games (home team in CAPS):
• Miami (Ohio) (+12) over CINCINNATI: The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Dustin Grutza to a leg injury against Oklahoma, so junior Tony Pike is making his first start. This is the nation’s oldest nonconference rivalry, and last year Miami suffered an embarrassing 47-10 home loss. Expect a better effort this year.
• AUBURN (+3) over Louisiana State: This SEC game usually determines the winner of the West division. LSU has not been tested in home victories over Appalachian State and North Texas, and now must travel to Auburn and play its first road game at night. Auburn’s defense held Mississippi State to 116 yards and no points last week. If the line is 21/2, it’s worth buying a half-point to take plus-3 with Auburn.
• NORTH CAROLINA (-3) over Virginia Tech: It’s a statement game for second-year Tar Heels coach Butch Davis. North Carolina has the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards in senior wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate. The Tar Heels had two extra days to prepare for this Atlantic Coast Conference showdown.
Virginia Tech continues to rotate the quarterback spot between Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor, who was 9-for-14 for 49 yards last week.
• New Mexico (+10) over TULSA: Tulsa has beaten two weak Conference USA teams in Alabama-Birmingham and North Texas, allowing more than 200 yards rushing in each game. New Mexico running back Rodney Ferguson should be able to find running room. The Lobos also benefit from playing their second consecutive game against a wide-open spread offense.
• San Jose State (+8) over STANFORD: This Bay Area rivalry game was dominated last year by Stanford, 37-0. San Jose State has improved with Cal transfer Kyle Reed at quarterback and the return of running back Yonus Davis, who missed last year because of injury. After traveling to Lincoln two weeks ago and playing Nebraska tough for three quarters, the Spartans dominated San Diego State, 35-10.
• Arizona (-3) over UCLA: Both teams get a welcome conference break from Mountain West competition. UCLA was pounded 59-0 by Brigham Young in the “Debacle at the Tabernacle.” Arizona should drop New Mexico from its schedule after losing for the second straight year as a double-digit favorite. This is a critical year for Wildcats coach Mike Stoops, and his team has the edge at quarterback in senior Willie Tuitama.
• Troy State (+201/2) over OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes continued their awful play in big games by getting routed 35-3 at Southern California. That the Ohio State offense struggled without running back Chris “Beanie” Wells was no surprise. What was unexpected was the poor play of the defense. Wells will miss this game, and freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor will see increased playing time.
Troy State is used to playing BCS foes on the road. Last year the Trojans traveled to Arkansas, Florida and Georgia.
Last week: 3-3 against the spread
Barry Holthaus, a handicapper for VegasInsider.com, is providing college football analysis for the Review-Journal this season. He can be heard on the Leroy’s Sports Hour at 10 p.m. Saturdays on KLAV-AM (1230).