This is the start of something big. After 11 years of Joe vs. the Pro, the grand experiment of social sports wagering (and a gift to the world) is expanding the universe and welcoming in a new player to the competition.
Everyone needs a hero to save us from the fear and loathing of 2020, and the great Ben Abercrombie is here for Joe to offer some of his signature courage and strength. Most importantly, the Hero is here to win, and teach Joe about picking football games. Everyone knows he needs the help.
Joe vs. the Pro was a lot of fun, but “Joe vs. the Pro and the Hero” is the new way we’re going to celebrate the game we cherish and the people we care about. No one works harder than the Hero. Nobody. Abercrombie played football at Hoover High School and Harvard, and he’s working every day to regain his ability to walk. He’s a student at Harvard, and an inspiration to all. To thank him, we want everyone to stand up for Ben, and show him some love.
Show Joe no love at all. Besmirch his name at small dinner parties, and troll him on Twitter.
Joseph Goodman is the lead sports columnist for AL.com, and his mortal pick’em enemy is Lee Sterling, a professional college football handicapper. They’re both honored to be joined by the Abercrombie for this wild ride through the 2020 college football season and beyond.
What is Joe vs. the Pro and the Hero? Consider it a service to society.
What happens when a sportswriter picks some of the toughest games of the week and goes head-to-head against a sharp and a football expert with a Harvard education? We’re all about to find out. So far, the Pro has beaten Joe every year except two. The Pro features his best picks on his website, ParamountSports.com, but he fearlessly picks the most difficult college games of the week against Joe.
There’s an old saying around these parts: fade Joe for dough.
G O O D M A N: 10 bold predictions for an unpredictable SEC football season
So, it was a slightly eventful offseason in the SEC. Stuff happened. Greg Sankey saved college football. Nick Saban and his players stood in the schoolhouse door. Tennessee is apparently good again.
OK, let’s not get crazy.
Where to begin with these things we’ve experienced? What strange twist awaits next? More importantly, where’s the bourbon? Joe needs some help processing what we’ve all been through just to make it to this point. Put it this way, the league now features a cowbell-swinging, Key West-vibing pirate/coach, and that’s normal stuff compared to the rest of it.
Pandemic football is here for the SEC, and the league is just throwing stuff together on the fly like everyone else. Players around the conference are getting tested for the coronavirus at least three times a week, so prepare for anything, including postponements, sudden roster changes and Kirby Smart maybe even winning the big game. Nah….
G O O D M A N: Hold your breath, SEC football is here
Betting on college football games this fall seems like a great way to relieve some stress, so let’s get to it. We should have known way back last year that things were about to get really nutso. Check out how Joe vs. Pro 2019 ended!
Joe: 72-20 straight up, 45-45-2 against the spread
Pro: 76-16 straight up, 48-42-2 against the spread
Notes: The Pro won the competition, but it was close yet again. The big development came in the final week of the season. After a horrendous start to 2019, Joe made a late charge and then went a perfect 6-0 against the spread in conference championship games to break even. It was Joe’s first parlay in the 11-year history of Joe vs. the Pro. On to the picks!
Mississippi State at No.6 LSU
When: 2:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
Series: LSU leads 75-35-3.
Spread: LSU by 17
Let’s go streaking: LSU with two in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: LSU sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. led the SEC in interceptions in 2019 (six) and passes defended (21).
Joe says: Stingley was a consensus All-American as a freshman, which is a pretty good way to start your career. Know a great way for a player of his caliber to start the season right after that triumphant arrival? Play Mississippi State in their first game with a new coach who runs an offense that lives in the air more than an albatross over the Arctic Ocean. Wazzu great Gardner Minshew completed 70.1 percent of his passes in that incredible 2018 season, but he still threw nine picks that year. Can LSU create enough pressure on State quarterback K.J. Castello to force multiple turnovers and cover the spread? That’s the big question for me. The Tigers will be without two projected starters (both opted-out for the NFL) along the D-line, so this one might be closer than expected. Tigers’ offense will keep it on the ground and burn the clock in their first game post-Joe Burrow.
Joe’s pick: LSU 35, Mississippi State 21
Pro says: While the LSU defense should still be good, I expect the offense to be down quite a few notches without quarterback Joe Burrow and receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who opted out of playing this season. The Tigers struggled for three quarters last year in Starkville before pulling away 36-13. This year, the Bulldogs should have a much improved offense led by Mike Leach and Stanford grad transfer K.J. Costello. They also will employ an unorthodox defense led by defensive coordinator Zach Arnett from San Diego State. While his name may not be familiar, he’s a Rocky Long disciple and has been known to really make things difficult for young or inexperienced quarterbacks. Tough game to handicap, but it might take time for the LSU offense to get into high gear.
Pro’s pick: LSU 35, Mississippi State 24
Hero says: Will be an entertaining game as the Pirate sets sail in the SEC, but LSU has too many athletes.
Hero’s pick: LSU 30, Mississippi State 17
No.16 Tennessee at South Carolina
When: 6:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
TV: SEC Network
Series: Tennessee leads 26-10-2.
Spread: Tennessee by 3.
Let’s go streaking: Tennessee won in 2019.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Jeremy Pruitt was 5-3 in the SEC last season. The last time the Vols won six league games was in 2007 when Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe went 10-4 overall, finished No.12 in the country and lost to Alabama to 41-17. It was Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa.
Joe says: Going down memory lane with Tennessee over the last 13 years is like taking a shortcut through a dark alley on Halloween that then leads into an old cemetery. Better run and don’t look back or you’re doomed. Tennessee won its final six games of 2019, and that’s all Vols fans care about going into Pruitt’s third season. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is about to be a four-year starter on Rocky top, God bless him, and it is my heartfelt wish for the Vols that Guarantano returns in 2021 to break every quarterback record in school history. Look, here’s the deal. Four-year starting quarterbacks are precious things when you’re playing pandemic football without spring practice and a preseason marked up with COVID-19 quarantines. Guarantano can be the hero that saves Tennessee from this long nightmare.
Joe’s pick: Tennessee 30, South Carolina 17
Pro says: Vols senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after early struggles seemed to turn the corner late last season. When they knocked off South Carolina last season 41-21 it started a six-game winning streak. Tennessee is recruiting well, found their identity last year and is an ascending team. South Carolina might get better as the season progresses, but their starting quarterback is a grad transfer from Colorado State who didn’t have the benefit of any spring practices. They also lost their top three running backs from last season, and the lack of a running game could put too much pressure on the passing game. The Tennessee secondary returns all five starters, and allowed only a 57.6 completion percentage. Sometimes you gotta lay points even on the road.
Pro’s pick: Tennessee 30, South Carolina 24
Hero says: Vols should continue their winning streak but this game could go either way.
Hero’s pick: Tennessee 17, South Carolina 13
No.5 Florida at Ole Miss
When: 11 a.m., Sat.
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
Series: Ole Miss leads 12-11-1.
Spread: Florida by 13.5.
Let’s go streaking: Florida won in 2015.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had more rushing yards last year (1,023) than Tim Tebow in his best season with the Gators (910 yards, 2009).
Joe says: Historically, this has been a highly competitive cross-division series. Florida trails by a game overall, but is 5-2 all-time in Oxford, Miss. The Gators haven’t made the trip since 2007, but Mullen, of course, has history with Ole Miss. He loves to needle his old rival, but Mullen’s history at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium started in that 2007 trip as the Gators’ offensive coordinator. Tebow was a sophomore, and rushed for 166 yards on 27 attempts. It ended up being a career high, but Ole Miss’ current quarterback eclipsed that number three times last year as a freshman. Tebow was a fullback who could throw, but Plumlee might be faster than his receivers. New Rebels coach Lane Kiffin will find a way to use that weapon to keep this one close.
Joe’s pick: Florida 38, Ole Miss 28
Pro says: The Ole Miss offense needs to become more balanced. They did run for 5.4 yards per carry last season as quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had 1,023 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Running back Jerrion Ealy chipped in 722 yards and 6 touchdowns. Plumlee and backup Matt Corral only threw for a combined 10 touchdowns, but the addition of coach Lane Kiffin, and with the top three wide receivers returning, I expect significant improvement through the airways. Florida does return quarterback Kyle Trask, but they lost their top running back and wide receiver to graduation. Except for the Tennessee-Martin and Vanderbilt games, they failed to score above 40 points in any game. The honeymoon period is in full bloom for Kiffin. This game could go down to the wire.
Pro’s pick: Florida 34, Mississippi 30
Hero says: Joey Freshwater will have some tricks up his sleeve, but the Gators should wear them down in the fourth quarter.
Hero’s pick: Florida 37, Ole Miss 20
FSU (0-1) at No.12 Miami (2-0)
When: 6:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
Series: Miami leads 34-30.
Spread: Miami by 10.5
Let’s go streaking: Miami three in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Miami running back Cam’ron Harris leads the country in yards per carry (10.3) among backs with at least 25 rushes.
Joe says: Miami quarterback D’Eriq King had an impressive streak of 16 games with at least one passing and one rushing touchdown going into the Canes’ matchup with Louisville. The streak ended, but only because the Canes just didn’t need him to lay his body on the line like he had to do for Houston. King passed for three touchdowns against the Cardinals, and Harris rushed for 134 yards on nine carries. King’s dynamic athleticism has opened up the Canes’ offense, and coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows how to use that space to pick up huge chunks of yards on the ground. Florida State is in a tough position with their coach in quarantine, and suddenly UAB’s 31-14 loss to the Canes doesn’t look so bad.
Joe’s pick: Miami 28, FSU 20
Pro says: Miami’s offense is much improved with Houston grad transfer D’Eriq King at the controls averaging 39 points per game. They have three running backs and two tight ends who have NFL potential, and the Hurricanes appear to be able to score in bunches.The Miami defense isn’t great, but the FSU offensive line is so bad I expect them to get a minimum of three to four sacks on Saturday night. FSU quarterback James Blackman doesn’t appear to be comfortable in the new offense, and if things go south early they might even have to turn to sophomore Jordan Travis, who has attempted just 12 career passes. The way to go historically in this series is to take the underdog, as the dog is 16-5 against the spread and the visitor is an even better 18-4 against the spread. Not this year! Miami won by 17 points last year in Tallahassee, and I expect a similar result in Hard Rock Stadium.
Pro’s pick: Miami 35, Florida State 17
Hero says: The Hurricanes finally have a good quarterback, so this will be a huge challenge for FSU without their head coach.
Hero’s pick: Miami 34, FSU 14
No.23 Kentucky at No.8 Auburn
When: 11 a.m., Sat.
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network
Series: Auburn leads 26-6-1.
Spread: Auburn by 8.
Let’s go streaking: Auburn two in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: The last three games between the Tigers and Wildcats have been decided by 13 total points.
Joe says: Auburn was originally scheduled to start the season with Alcorn State, so this is a slight upgrade in degree of difficulty. These Tigers, of course, are well accustomed to pressure in the opening week of a season. In 2019, freshman quarterback Bo Nix exploded onto the scene with a fourth-quarter comeback against Oregon at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. The year before that, Auburn knocked off No.6 Washington in Texas to start the season. All the talk has been about the Wildcats’ defensive line vs. Auburn’s offensive front, but it’s Auburn’s defensive front and the poise of their quarterback that should be the difference in this game. In a close game, give me the quarterback who knocked off Alabama as a freshman.
Joe’s pick: Auburn 28, Kentucky 25
Pro says: Tigers quarterback Bo Nix should make a huge leap in his sophomore year. The problem is they have a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, four new starting offensive linemen and didn’t have the benefit of any spring practices. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson missed last season due to injury, but is a dual-threat quarterback who led the Wildcats to a 10-3 record in 2018. When you think of some of the best offensive and defensive lines in the SEC you think of LSU, Alabama and Georgia. These Wildcat offensive and defensive lines are just a notch below those three. That’s saying a lot. I also think Kentucky will muck up the game. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is a horrific 4-11 the last 15 games as a Jordan-Hare SEC favorite. Kentucky pulls off the outright upset.
Pro’s pick: Kentucky 24, Auburn 21
Hero says: UK should make this game competitive, but Auburn will find a way to win in Jordan-Hare.
Hero’s pick: Auburn 21, Kentucky 17
No.2 Alabama at Missouri
When: 6 p.m., Sat.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Columbia, Mo.
Series: Alabama leads 4-2.
Spread: Alabama by 28
Let’s go streaking: Alabama four in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Alabama has won 26 in a row against teams from the SEC East.
Joe says: I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around that Super Stat of the Week while also contemplating the fact that Paul Bryant’s Alabama lost its first two games against Missouri before finally breaking through against the Tigers in 1975. This is not your great-grandfather’s Mizzou, which, stunningly, outscored Bryant’s Alabama 55-17 in those two losses (1968 and 1975). This preseason has been a little bit crazy, but the usually noisy quarterback position has been an afterthought for the Crimson Tide. No controversy. No hype. Just understated Mac Jones coming off 12.9 yards per completion against Auburn’s elite defensive front in the 2019 Iron Bowl, and 13.7 yards per completion against Michigan. The stats will be good again, and Alabama could reverse match the scoring totals from those first two losses if Saban wants to send a statement.
Joe’s pick: Alabama 55, Mizzou 14
G O O D M A N: Alabama-influenced NFL showcases state’s power
Pro says: When playing an Alabama defense looking to wipe out the bad taste of giving up 18.6 points per game, it’s usually a good idea to have an established dual-threat quarterback in place. As of press time, Missouri either hadn’t decided on a starting quarterback or wasn’t ready to reveal who that lucky young man is going to be. That lucky quarterback that draws the short straw will be operating behind an offensive line that has to replace three starters, and the other two won’t be nominated for all-conference honors anytime soon. On offense, Alabama returns seven starters on offense and should pick right up where they left off last year with quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Devonta Smith. When you have a prolific offense that is as consistent as Bama’s is, averaging 47.2 points per game, and as poor as Missouri is, averaging just 25.3 points per game, this has all the makings of a blowout.
Pro’s pick: Alabama 55, Missouri 13
Hero says: Difficult to cover 28 on the road in the SEC, but the Tide will roll over a COVID-depleted Mizzou with a first-year coach.
Hero’s pick: Alabama 41, Mizzou 10
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