Cowboys vs. Giants Preview

The NFL regular season is finally here and it all kicks off with the Dallas Cowboys visiting the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants tonight. The Cowboys will hope to improve from last season’s 8-8 record and atrocious 1-6 finish to the season, while the Giants will look to continue its success from a year ago and get the year started right with a win over its divisional rival. Although the Cowboys have a winning history in the rivalry, it has been the Giants who have gotten the best of Dallas in recent years. Here is what we can expect from both teams on opening night, as well as in 2012.

The Giants are obviously riding a high from last season and some might think they aren’t motivated, but I beg to differ. As we’ve seen in the last couple years, this has been an overachieving team that is built on self-motivation and heart, especially when playing “America’s team”; the Dallas Cowboys. Since this is the opening game of the season, everyone wants to look good, especially on national TV. If anything, the Giants will be more motivated than usual and will bring their “A” game tonight. Let’s not forget that the Giants are at home as well; which is just another advantage for the G Men.

Romo will look to avoid New York's pass rush tonight

Both rosters are virtually the same as they were the last time these teams met, so there’s no reason to think the Giants can’t continue to use what worked against the Cowboys last year and what worked was pressuring Tony Romo. The Giants have sacked Romo 14 times in the last five meetings and have knocked him down on many more occasions than that. If the Boys can’t protect Romo, expect him to struggle and possibly make a crucial mistake, like a fumble or interception that might swing the momentum New York’s way.

On the flip side of the coin, look for Eil Manning to thrive at home against Dallas. The Cowboys have only been able to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage four times in those five games, even with All-Pro DeMarcus Ware applying the heat. One thing that may hurt New York in the passing game is the depletion at the wide receiver position. Mario Manningham signed with the 49ers in the offseason and Hakeem Nicks is currently listed as questionable, leaving Victor Cruz as Manning’s only solid target. However, if Ware and Co. cannot get to Manning, it may not matter as long as other guys can step up and make catches.

If Dallas isn’t able to protect Romo, look for the Cowboys to go to more screens and quick passes out of the backfield to their quicksters, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones. Murray may be the biggest threat to the Giants in the run game and in the pass game, so look for Dallas to try to exploit that edge by getting him plenty of touches.

Bovada has the Giants at four point favorites and I like them to cover that four in the opener. The over/under is set at 45 and since this is the first game of the season, I don’t see these teams coming out as crisp as they may be later on offensively. Because of that and because I think Dallas will struggle to score more than 20 on its own, I like the under.

With the pretty much the same rosters as last season, each of these teams should finish 2012 with about the same records. The Cowboys might improve slightly and the Giants may as well, but I don’t see Dallas making the playoffs. The Cowboys are currently +130 to make the postseason and -160 to fall short and I’ll have to side with them falling short. Interestingly, the Giants are also dogs to make the playoffs in 2012 at Yes +110 and No -140, but I don’t see why they can’t repeat as NFC East Division champs. The only other real competition is Philly and they will only contend if Mike Vick stays healthy all year. I would take the +110 Yes, as it looks like a bet that stands to make money.

Can Eli and the Giants repeat in 2012?

As far as repeating as Super Bowl Champions, the Giants are indeed a long shot, but the fact that they’ve already won two in recent years when nobody thought they had a chance, does say something. New York is currently at 18/1 to win the whole thing, so if you are feeling lucky and bet small, it could prove to be a profitable wager as well.

Washington Nationals On The Cusp Of…What?

On Wednesday night, the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys in the 2012 NFL curtain-raiser. While both team’s division rival Washington Redskins doesn’t begin play until Sunday – at New Orleans (1:00 PM ET) – plenty will be switching the channel from baseball to football come kickoff time.

This could spell bad news for the Washington Nationals, who for the entire season have thrilled spectators with a true Cinderella story. If D.C. audiences do in fact shy away from baseball in favor of the Redskins, part of the problem will lay squarely at the feet of the Nationals front office and their impending decision to sit pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Take your pick: the Redskins kickoff (in New Orleans) at 1:00 (ET) on Sunday whilst first pitch at Nationals park is 1:35.

Washington has historically been a football city. The Redskins have won three Super Bowls and two NFL championships since relocating from Boston in 1936, the last of which came in 1991. Since ’91 things haven’t been all that rosy for the Skins. The team’s last division championship came in 1991 and its last playoff appearance was 2007. Still, FedEx Field sells out each and every game.

In fairness for Washington sports fan, it’s not hard to see why the Redskins are the city’s biggest draw – despite being outside of the city, in Landover, Md.

In the NHL, the Capitals have won nothing. The team’s only Stanley Cup appearance came back in 1998 when the Detroit Redwings made short work of a 4-0 finals series. Even the appeal of Alex Ovechkin hasn’t translated to success.

In the NBA, the Wizards have been a doormat for the past decade. The team – then known as the Bullets – won the NBA championship in 1978, and since it’s been all downhill. A brief flirtation with Michael Jordan saw interest pique, but today’s Wizards team is hardly a draw.

That leaves the city with the Nationals.

The impending Stephen Strasburg shutdown could alienate fans.

Arriving in 2005 from Montreal, the Nationals sparked a mild interest in Capitol baseball finishing the inaugural season with a respectable 81-81, good enough for last place in the NL East. Last? Things got a lot worse. The six seasons that followed all ended with a losing record, with last season’s 80 wins being the high mark. 2009’s 103 losses was the low water mark.

But this season, the Nationals have surprised everyone. Behind a solid starting rotation which includes Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 2.94 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (17-7, 3.10) and Jordan Zimmerman (9-8, 3.01 ERA), the Nationals have already secured 83 wins, the most since arriving in D.C.

It’s not just about great starting pitching either. Tuesday’s 11-5 victory over the pitiful Cubs saw Washington bats light-up. A team-record six homers in one game were recorded as the Nationals tallied 19 hits and first baseman Adam LaRoche went 4-4 with two runs, two RBIs and a walk. Sure it was the Cubs, but this was the sort of performance that fans want to see, and in many ways have become accustomed to.

Currently 7 ½ games ahead of second-place Atlanta in the NL East, the Nationals are looking good for the city’s first postseason baseball berth since 1933 and something for D.C. fans to cheer about. For all intents and purposes, the Nationals should be a threat to keep Washington sports fans watching baseball instead of their beloved Redskins.

But, things could take a horrible turn by the end of this week. Stephen Strasburg is currently penciled in to pitch on against the Marlins on Friday. Having pitched 156.1 innings heading in to play, any kind of decent start will have him exceed the 160 innings limit that has been earmarked for his shutdown – a precautionary move following Tommy John surgery last offseason.

The Nationals front office is adamant that this shutdown is happening, even if the Nationals are not only in the thick of things but looking good to make some serious noise throughout October. That same front office shut Zimmerman down last season, and isn’t looking like baulking just yet.

If Strasburg is removed from the lineup, they have a solid set of players to rely on, but the loss of one big arm can make the difference between getting dumped early in October and making it to the later postseason rounds. It might also be considered a kick in the teeth to Nationals fans that are so close to enjoying the team’s success, yet so very skeptical.

One thing’s for sure, if Strasburg is shutdown, there’s a good chance that a lot of fans may well be watching the Redskins on Sunday afternoon and not the Nationals.

Orioles within One Game of Yankees in AL East

The Yankees have led the AL East for most of the year and at times have seemed like a lock for a spot in the postseason, but things have changed as Baltimore and Tampa Bay continue to creep closer to New York in the race. After last night’s win for the O’s and Rays and loss for the Yanks, New York’s lead is just a slim one game over Baltimore and just two and a half over Tampa. Things just got more interesting indeed.

The Orioles have really been on the move over the last month, as they have won 20 of their last 28 games, which included taking two out of three from the Yankees over the weekend. The O’s began their three-game series with an impressive shutout win over the Toronto Blue Jays last night 4-0, as the Yankees lost to the Rays 4-3, closing the gap to the closest margin it has been since the middle of June.

O’s starter Joe Saunders and three relievers combined to shutout the Jays. Saunders pitched into the seventh inning until he got in a bases-loaded jam, which reliever Luis Ayala was able to get out of by striking out one hitter and getting the next to hit a harmless fly-ball out.

J.J. Hardy led the O’s offensive attack by driving in two of the team’s four runs on an RBI double in the fifth and an RBI single in the eighth. Adam Jones added two hits, as did Nate McLouth, who also started Baltimore’s scoring with a sacrifice fly in the first inning.

Britton looks to make in four in a row tonight

The O’s will look to keep things rolling as they face off against the Jays in game two of the series tonight. They will send starter Zach Britton to the mound to face Carlos Villanueva of Toronto. The two pitchers squared off against each other last on August 24th, with Britton and the Orioles taking home the win. Britton, who has won three straight starts, is coming one of his best outings of the year, a 10 strikeout performance in a win over the White Sox.

The O’s are hot and the Blue Jays are not. I like the Orioles to cover the -1.5 runline in this one with Britton going deep into the game against an anemic Jays lineup.

Meanwhile, the Yankees are slipping a bit and at the wrong time. New York has dropped its last two and four of its last ten, including last night’s game against the Rays. James Shields pitched eight strong innings for the Rays, nabbing his 13th win of the season. He left the game tied 3-3, but Chris Gimenez drove in what would be the winning run in the bottom half of the inning to make it 4-3. Fernando Rodney then shut the door on New York in the ninth, picking up save number 41 on the year.

Tampa spoiled A-Rod's return, but look for him to get even in tonight's ballgame

The good news for New York is that last night marked the return of Alex Rodriguez, who had missed the last six weeks with a broken hand. He went 1-4 in the loss on Monday, but the Yankees are hoping that with A-Rod back in the lineup, their production at the plate will increase once again.

New York will send 7-5 Freddy Garcia to the mound to take on 8-8 Alex Cobb of the Rays. Even with the Yankees struggling, I have to think they will bounce back in this one. They simply have too much talent to continue to lose close games. Look for the Yankees to cover the +1.5 runline and get back on track today.

AL Wild Card Race Getting Tighter

Tuesday night is all about baseball. The new college football season enjoys a few days rest before returning on Thursday (Pittsburgh at Cincinnati) while the NFL kicks off tomorrow with the Cowboys at Giants. That leaves bettors starting the new post-Labor Day week with baseball, baseball, baseball.

With the end of season less than a month from now, the Wild Card picture in the American League is getting fuzzier and fuzzier. Tonight sees a six card slate of teams involved in the postseason hunt, plenty for you to wager on.

New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay Rays

Alex Cobb and the Tampa Bay Rays will look to gain ground with a win over the Yankees.

New York (76-58, 35-30 road) dropped last night’s opener to Tampa Bay (74-61, 36-30 home) 4-3 despite the return of Alex Rodriguez. The defeat, combined with a Baltimore victory, now has the Yankees just one game ahead of the Orioles for the lead in the AL East. Meanwhile, Tampa is just 2 ½ games back. A victory for the Rays here will be a bonus for both trailing teams, and will put the Yanks seriously on the rocks.

Freddy Garcia (7-5, 4.90 ERA) pitches for the Yankees – who have lost 10 of the last 16 – after two disappointing outings against the White Sox and Indians that saw him pitch less than five innings both games. Alex Cobb (8-8, 4.39 ERA) goes for the Rays. He’s 4-0 in his last six starts and is a threat to win any game.

New York is +1 ½ point underdogs at -180 odds, but it looks safer to take the Rays in this one. The over/under is set at 8 ½ runs. Take the over; New York is averaging nearly eight runs over the past 10 games while Tampa is averaging nearly seven in that same period.

Baltimore Orioles @ Toronto Blue Jays

Baltimore (75-59, 38-29) will look to strengthen its current position as second Wild Card with a second successive victory over Toronto (60-74, 33-33 home).

Baltimore lefty Zach Britton (4-1, 4.80 ERA) lost last time out against the Yankees but he’ll be marginal favorite over Carlos Villanueva (7-4, 3.10) on the grounds that Toronto’s offense has been spluttering since Jose Bautista returned to IR list. Take the -105 moneyline in favor of the Orioles, alongside the under (at -120) for 8 ½ runs; these teams aren’t likely to light the scoreboard up, as seen by Monday night’s 4-0 scoreline.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim @ Oakland Athletics

Jarrod Parker will look to guide the Wild Card-leading A's over the Angels.

Good play of late has the Angels (72-63, 36-34 road) back in discussions for the Wild Card. Oakland (76-58, 42-28) currently leads the race and is 3 ½ games up on Los Angeles.

The Angels took Monday night’s game 8-3 with Vernon Wells and Chris Ianetta – the bottom of the lineup – combining for five RBIs. Zack Greinke (12-5, 3.82 ERA) will pitch for the Angels. He’s 3-2 with a 4.82 ERA since joining the Halos from Milwaukee. He’ll be up against Jarrod Parker (9-7, 3.72 ERA) who has pitched three solid games on the bounce.

Los Angeles is favorite (-1 ½ at +135 odds) but Oakland’s -155 moneyline could be worth a bet; the A’s have been playing tough and will be looking to put distance between themselves and their California rivals.

Elsewhere: Detroit hosts Cleveland looking to once again to go into a tie with Chicago on top of the AL Central. It will take a Tigers win and a White Sox loss at home to Minnesota. Both open as favorites and it’s hard to see past two wins here. Texas, meanwhile, continues its charge to the AL West title with the second of four in Kansas City, a game in which the Rangers are evens to win.

Meanwhile: On the other side of the AL/NL divide, things are equally as tough. Cincinnati is all but assured of the NL Central but everything else is up for grabs. St. Louis (73-62, 41-26 home) is ½ game ahead of Los Angeles for the final Wild Card slot so tonight’s game against the Mets (64-71, 34-36 road) is a must-win. St. Louis is favorite (-1 ½ at +135) and looks like the better bet. The Dodgers (73-63, 38-31 home) meanwhile host San Diego (62-74, 29-41 road) and look set to cash in on their favored status (-1 ½ at -110). Tuesday looks like it’s worth sticking with expectations in the National League.

Tigers Even Things in the Central

The Detroit Tigers completed a crucial sweep of the Chicago White Sox on Sunday to pull even in the AL Central division, with both teams at 72-61. The Tigers got it done on the mound, in the field and at the plate, as they earned Justin Verlander his 13th win of the season and handed Chris Sale only his 6th loss in the 4-2 finish. Detroit may now have the momentum, but do they have what it takes to clinch the Central down the stretch?

Miggy and Co. got their biggest wins of the year this weekend

The Tigers definitely have the pitching rotation to get the job done with not only Verlander, but also another 200K+ pitcher in Max Scherzer this season. Detroit also has the bats, with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Delmon Young in the lineup. So, it’s really not a question if Detroit can clinch the Central, but it’s more if they can?

Verlander is still one of the best in the buisness

The White Sox are the only team standing in their way and although the Sox have led most of the season, things have certainly changed now. After a demoralizing sweep, the White Sox find themselves tied with their division rival with almost 30 games left in the season. The big bat of Adam Dunn has missed the last couple of games, but he is expected to return soon. Otherwise, the Sox should still be in good shape to continue their winning ways down the stretch, but they are going to have to beat their division nemesis; the Detroit Tigers to seal the deal in the Central.

Luckily, fans of this divisional rivalry won’t have to wait long, as the next meeting between these two teams takes place in a final four-game series September 10-13 in Chicago. This could likely be the turning point for either team in the race and could decide who goes to the postseason.

Out of its 29 games remaining, Detroit has 19 against teams under .500, including the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, who are struggling like no one could believe. This gives the Tigers a great opportunity to seize the division if they can simply win easy games and split the tough games with the likes of the A’s and the Angels.

The White Sox have a very similar schedule, as they play 18 sub .500 teams out of 29 games, so it may very well come down to the games against the Tigers this upcoming week. The stakes are certainly raised for a White Sox team that more or less had things under control in the Central a week ago. Will the bats of Konerko and Dunn be able to step up? We will have to wait and see. currently has Chicago at 56% to win the division, but this certainly doesn’t account for the momentum Detroit has gained over the last week. I liked Chicago all along in this race and although I still think they are a good team, the advantage is undeniably with the Tigers now. Detroit has the talent on both sides; the mound and the plate, and is peaking at the right time, not to mention is beating their rivals into the ground. This week’s sweep showed me that the Tigers are the new favorites and at 8/1 for the World Series compared to 15/1 for the Sox at Bovada, it seems clear that the Tigers are now the team to beat in the Central.

Jones-Drew Ends Holdout, Jags Look Forward

Jones-Drew's return to Jacksonville could have both a positive and negative impact on the team.

Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew reported to training on Sunday (Sept 2) ending his 38-day contract holdout.

Jones-Drew – who led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,606 yards – met in private with head coach Mike Mularkey before addressing the media.

“This is the last talk about the whole contract situation,” he told members of the press.

“We’re going to move forward to football after this.”

Afterwards, Jones-Drew reported for conditioning training.

Notably, the running back returns to Jacksonville without a new contract. He had reportedly been looking to restructure his current deal – which is set to pay $9.4 million over the next two seasons – following his pacesetting 2011 season. Over the summer Jones-Drew saw the likes of LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte rewarded for their achievements last year, while the likes of Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson sat on bigger contracts despite down years.

Having already shelled out more than $21 million on the contract originally inked in 2009, the Jaguars front office however declined Jones-Drew’s wishes.

The decision came despite career bests in attempts, yards gained and average yards per game. Jacksonville’s running game last season – which ranked 12th overall – at least made up in part for a lackluster passing attack that was worst in the league. It could even be argued that the Jaguars’ running backs and pass defense kept the record from looking a lot worse than 5-11. But owner Shad Khan and Co. would not be held to ransom, particularly as the Jaguars have failed to make the playoffs in each of the three seasons Jones-Drew has started.

Jones-Drew will now have to prepare for the upcoming season knowing that he’ll be playing a backup role, at least for the start of the campaign.

Jacksonville has committed to starting Rashad Jennings on Sunday in Minnesota. The fourth-year back has played all four of Jacksonville’s preseason games, averaging 52 yards on 12 carries per game. The Jaguars have gone 3-1 over that period.

The news that Jones-Drew will play behind Jennings has already filtered through to oddsmakers. Odds for the six-year veteran leading the league in rushing have fallen to 9/1. Even as recently as two weeks ago, amidst the holdout, odds could still be found at 15/2.

For Jacksonville, the entire process has been an unwanted distraction. No matter how blasé Khan’s comments have been, the Jaguars needed to be focused and ready for the start of the season in order to erase a poor 2011 season from the memories of fans.

With news that the Jaguars will play at Wembley Stadium in London, England, for four seasons starting in 2013, and the ongoing rumors that Khan will relocate the team to Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future, fans are already on the edge of their seats. Another poor season could spell disaster for the Florida team.

But a poor season is what’s expected again this year.

With second-year QB Blaine Gabbart on a tight leash – and backup Chad Henne breathing down his neck – Jacksonville’s offense will be bolstered by the arrival of free agent WR Laurent Robinson and rookie WR Justin Blackmon. Still, the running game is going to be vital if the passing game is to improve this year.

Odds of Jacksonville winning the Super Bowl are a lofty 200/1. While nobody really expects the team to compete for the Vince Lombardi trophy, these odds set the Jags as worst in the league, an honor the team shares with Cleveland. Even the team’s odds of winning the AFC South are considerably enormous, at 25/1. With the over/under set at 5 ½ games, most oddsmakers still expect the team to fall below that mark.

Jones-Drew may still have an important role to fill this season, but how much stock will Jacksonville put in a player that wants a bigger salary and is reportedly open to being traded?

Division and Wild Card Races Heat Up This Sunday

Whilst the arrival of the new College football season this weekend has seen a flurry of sports betting, it’s worth remembering that Major League Baseball is starting to really heat up and there’s plenty of action to be had this Sunday.

Of the six MLB divisions, only Cincinnati in the NL Central looks to have a secure grip on the top spot. At 8 ½ games ahead of St. Louis, the surging Reds look a fairly safe bet to take the division. Washington remains 6 ½ ahead of the Braves with both teams trying their best to lose at all costs. San Francisco’s 4 ½ game lead over Los Angeles could take a hit when the two teams meet next weekend and again in October.

In the American League New York and Texas hold a three game lead in their respective divisions, while Chicago’s lead has dwindled to one game after Detroit was victorious on Saturday. Nothing is set yet, and with the introduction of a second Wild Card slot things look like they’ll go down to the wire.

Here then is a pair of match-ups and lines to keep an eye on this Sunday.

Baltimore Orioles @ New York Yankees

The hot-and-cold Phil Hughes takes to the mound for the Yankees on Sunday afternoon.

The rubber match of this three game series will see Chris Tillman (7-2, 3.26 ERA) take the mound for the Orioles, with Phil Hughes (13-11, 4.02 ERA) going for the Yankees.

Tillman has been a pleasant surprise for the O’s in his 10 starts and has already registered a victory against the Yankees on July 31. Hughes has been a bit of an anomaly, looking like a world-beater one moment and a Triple-A pitcher the next. Still, over the past three games he’s only given up a combined three earned runs.

New York (76-56, 41-27 home) is currently three games ahead of Baltimore (73-59, 41-27 road) having taken a win on Saturday. Baltimore hasn’t been this close to a division leader this late in the season since 1997 – the year the Birds won the division outright – and hasn’t beaten the Yankees in a series since that same season.

Baltimore is the underdog at +130 but the combination of Tillman’s strong pitching, Baltimore’s impressive record since the All Star break and the Yankees’ injuries and slump could make this a bet worth placing. Take the over on nine runs for -120; Hughes is liable to give up a slew and Tillman has had some good run support to get him through some tough games.

St. Louis Cardinals @ Washington Nationals

Sunday afternoon's game against the Cardinals could be Steven Strasburg's penultimate appearance of the season.

Washington (80-52, 38-25 home) is looking to hold on to the NL East. A recent string of poor results has seen Cincinnati pass them as the team with the best record in baseball. Meanwhile, St. Louis (72-61, 32-35 road) is looking to lockup one of the two Wild Card spots.

Jake Westbrook (13-10, 3.94 ERA) will pitch for the Cardinals. He’s 6-2 over his last eight starts but was roughed-up by Pittsburgh on Tuesday, giving up seven runs on 11 hits. He’ll be up against Steven Strasburg (15-6, 3.05 ERA) who has enjoyed an impressive season, despite the constant media circus focusing on his impending shutdown. For the record, Strasburg has pitched 150.1 innings so far this season, leaving him 9.2 to play with. That’s Sunday’s start and one against Miami next weekend.

Washington is favored (-1 ½ at +130 odds) and it’s probably best to go with the favorite here. Strasburg will be looking to go out with a bang with potentially just two games left on the slate while St. Louis will be tired in the final game of a nine-game road trip that has passed through Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as well as Washington.

Take the over on eight runs at -125; Washington has scored eight or more runs in five straight games and Saturday night’s 10-9 victory shows St. Louis is no slouch when it comes to offense.

College Football Week 1 Recap

The highly anticipated college football season finally got underway this weekend and although there are still a couple of big games yet to be played, (Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech on Monday)most of the major action for week one is in the books. It was a weekend full of close calls for many top ranked teams and at the same time, a talent showcase for others. There were no major upsets on Friday or Saturday, but there were some surprises, while a few teams did exactly what we knew they could, but it was still undeniably impressive.

As there tend to be with first week matchups in college football, blowups were abound on Saturday, but there were also a number of close games where ranked teams escaped upsets, but revealed some weaknesses.

The Panthers gave the Badgers a run for their money

Wisconsin hosted Northern Iowa in one of the early games on Saturday and got more than it bargained for from the Panthers, as the Badgers held on in the fourth quarter to win 26-21. Things were going as planned for the Badgers early, as Montee Ball rushed for 120 yards, punching into the endzone for his only score early in the third quarter to make it 19-0 Wisconsin at that point. Northern Iowa then stormed back, scoring three touchdowns in less than a quarter, cutting the lead to five. The Panthers had the ball one more time in Wisconsin territory with only minutes to play, but came up short on fourth and one, as their pass was deflected by a Badger defender. The 12th ranked Badgers improved to 1-0, but will have to improve in other ways in coming weeks to avoid meltdowns like the one they almost endured at the hands of an FCS opponent.

Other teams that were tested by underdogs this week included #9 South Carolina, which won its game 17-13 against Vanderbilt on Thursday, #13 Michigan State, which prevailed by the same score over #24 Boise State on Friday and #21 Stanford, which nearly dropped its opener against San Jose State, 20-17.

Some scares were certainly had in week one, but many of the top teams flexed their muscles. Number one USC scored a 75 yard touchdown on its first play from scrimmage on the way to a 49-10 rout of Hawaii on Saturday. Heisman frontrunner Matt Barkley threw for 377 yards and 4 TDs in the impressive home win. Barkley is currently 3/1 to take the coveted trophy, while the Trojans are also 3/1 for the National Championship. Both Barkley and his team looked good in week one, but we’ll have to wait and see how the Trojans fare against more challenging foes as the season progresses.

Nick Saban and Brady Hoke shake hands at the end of the Cowboys Classic

The most impressive performance was from that of the defending National Champions and number two ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide had what was seemingly the toughest opponent of the big teams in the #8 Michigan Wolverines, but the Tide quickly rolled over U of M, showing their dominance in a 41-14 win on national TV. The teams were part of this year’s Cowboys Classic, which is played at neutral site Cowboy Stadium in Arlington Texas. Alabama shined on the big stage in round one of its title defense with a new group of eager and determined players. Freshman running back T.J. Yeldon rushed for 111 yards on 11 carries in just his first college game, while returning starting QB A.J. McCarron threw for two scores and 199 yards.

It was nothing too surprising that the Tide looked like…well…themselves, but what was surprising is that they continue to dominate each and every opponent they face and it seems like they were able to pick up where they left off from last season. Alabama is currently 5/1 to win it all and if we had to crown a team today, it would no doubt be Alabama.

Alabama Faces Tough Michigan Challenge in Season Opener

In what has to be considered the crown jewel of opening weekend, #2 Alabama squares-off against #8 Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night (8:00 PM ET).

The marquee matchup not only offers the chance to see the defending champion during opening week but also the opportunity to see a team that many expect to win the Big Ten this season. For both teams this is sure to be a tough contest.

Nick Saban and Alabama will face a tough first challenge in their bid for a third title in four years.

Having wrestled the title away from LSU in 2011, Alabama opens the season with the crystal football very much in mind. Success this season would mark the Crimson Tide’s third championship in four years and a seventh straight victory for the SEC.

For the team from Tuscaloosa, the biggest challenge this season will be adapting to new faces. With the departure of Trent Richardson, Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron, Nick Saban will be slotting a fair few new players in on both sides of the football.

Advantageously for Michigan, at least six of these new faces will be on the defense. Having kept teams to an average of 183.6 yards and eight points last season, Alabama was a defensive juggernaut and things look to be the same again this season. Getting the Tide early on in the season means Michigan may be able to take advantage of some defensive inexperience though.

On the offensive side of the football, Eddie Lacy replaces Trent Richardson and his 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Lacy may not be Heismann-material, but his seven touchdowns and 11.9 YPG average – which was actually higher than Richardson ­– demonstrates that he has the potential to do more than just plug the gap.

Meanwhile, Michigan will be looking to recapture the glory of the 2011 season – the first under head coach Brady Hoke – in which the team compiled 11 wins. Not much had been expected of the Wolverines prior to the season, but Hoke’s coaching stirred a fire, and a confidence, in his team.

With the absence of Toussaint, Denard Robinson will handle more of the rushing on Saturday.

The outstanding play of quarterback Denard Robinson – who threw for 2,173-yards, rushed for 1,176-yards, and tallied 36 all-purpose touchdowns – led the team to the Sugar Bowl and a 23-20 win over Virginia Tech. Robinson returns for his Senior season hoping to add a Big Ten championship and National Title to his résumé.

The showdown also offers Michigan the chance to win the Big Ten some important bragging rights. The much-fancied SEC continues to dominate National Championship talk, and with six consecutive championships, why wouldn’t it? But while many bestow the title on the SEC ­­­– or USC for that matter – the Big Ten is quietly becoming one of the best conferences in college football. Five teams reached the AP preseason poll with only the Big 12 and the aforementioned SEC having more representatives (six apiece).

What’s more, a strong showing on the field from Michigan may have a few people looking away from the conference’s torrid offseason towards the action on the gridiron.

Despite its setting and importance to both teams, Alabama enters the game as considerable favorites, with most lines having the Crimson Tide to take the game by two touchdowns. No doubt Michigan’s odds took a tumble when starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended for one game on Friday after pleading guilty to drink-driving. With Toussaint off the field, Alabama’s inexperienced defensive corps can focus on the dual-threat of Robinson.

Still, if Robinson can avoid tackles and attack Alabama on the ground, whilst managing some proficient and accurate throws – yes, that’s a lot to ask – the Michigan offense could still be in with a chance.

When all is said and done and the dust settles at Cowboys Stadium, Alabama may well be victorious but the chances are it will come after a much tougher battle than some have anticipated.

Cowboys Classic: Alabama vs. Michigan

Last season’s Cowboys Classic pitted two top five teams against each other that both ended up reaching BCS Bowls at the end of the season in LSU and Oregon. This year’s game, held at neutral site, Cowboy Stadium, will once again display two of the nation’s premier football programs in what will undoubtedly be the game of the week in college football. The matchup: the Alabama Crimson Tide, the defending national champions, against the newly revitalized Michigan Wolverines, who are coming off an eleven win season and are preseason ranked in the top ten for the first time in five years (#8). There is sure to be a highly-intense, one-of-a-kind game that will have everyone talking and wanting to get action from its juicy line this weekend.

The Tide come into the 2012 season opener ranked #2 in the country and although they lost many of their starters on both sides of the ball to graduation and the NFL draft, they are sure to be reloaded with some of the finest talent the nation has to offer.

The big and powerful offensive line of Alabama often dominates opponents

The disciplined and methodical Alabama offense will as always be anchored by its veteran offensive line. Even with Eddie Lacey getting his first start at tailback, replacing first round NFL pick Trent Richardson, the Tide should be just fine running the football. A. J. McCarron will be back under center for Bama, as he comes off a season from a year ago that included over 2,500 passing yards and 16 TDs to only 5 INTS. As always, Alabama will look to wear down the defense and impose their will to run the football on Michigan, who was a team that struggled defensively at times last year.

Like Alabama, Michigan’s strength is running the ball, but not in the traditional hand-it-to-the-tailback way that the Tide uses. Michigan’s quarterback, Denard Robinson, is an explosive slasher with the ability to get outside and make big plays with his feet. Incredibly, Robinson put up running back-like numbers last year with over 1,000 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on the ground. However, Robinson is not just a runner. He is a true duel threat, as he also passed for over 2,000 yards and threw 15 TD strikes as well. He is the type of player that can change the game for Michigan and give them a chance with his big-play- making ability.

Robinson is Michigan's best weapon

Usually Robinson has some more help in the running game, but Michigan’s starting tailback from last season, Fitzgerald Toussaint is suspended for the opener against Alabama, so the game may be even more on the shoulders of Robinson.

Michigan is a 13.5 point underdog against the mighty defending champions in this game. The big challenge for the Wolverines will be stopping the rushing attack of the Tide, which will bring one of the biggest and strongest offensive lines in the country. Alabama is used to dominating the time of possession by running the ball and continuing to move the chains on third down. If Michigan cannot contain the running game and force McCarron to throw the ball, it will be in big trouble. The play-making ability of Robinson will not be as much of a factor if Michigan doesn’t get a chance to possess the ball enough.

Unfortunately, these are the reasons that U of M is such a big dog in this game and are also the reasons why I have to favor Alabama to cover the spread. Alabama has the advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball and even though Robinson may dazzle at times, it won’t be enough to carry the Wolverines to victory. Alabama is simply too deep and too talented at every position and in a 60 minute game, the Tide will be able to wear any team down and break their spirit.