Sept. 14 NCAA Football Picks and Preview — No. 2 Alabama (2-0) at South Carolina (1-1)

(Tua Tagovailoa photo courtesy John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Saturday, Sept. 14, Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C., 3:30 p.m. EDT.

Ryan Hilinski goes from outstanding college debut to facing overwhelming odds Saturday when South Carolina hosts second-ranked Alabama in the SEC opener for both schools.

A true freshman, Hilinski was thrust into the starting role after Jake Bentley suffered a season-ending foot injury on the final play of South Carolina’s 24-20 loss to North Carolina on Aug. 31. That accelerated the timetable for the nationally heralded recruit, who had the luxury of a full week of reps at practice as the No. 1 quarterback ahead of his first start and an overmatched opponent in FCS foe Charleston Southern.

Hilinski showed why he was recruited so hard to Columbia, completing 24 of 30 passes for 282 yards and two TDs as the Gamecocks (1-1) thrashed the Cougars 72-10. South Carolina finished with 775 yards of total offense as Kevin Harris had a 75-yard touchdown gallop and finished with 147 yards and three scores on just six carries.

Mon Denson also cracked 100 yards, finishing with 118 on nine carries, and Rico Dowdle chipped in 87 on 10 rushes. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp kept the offense simple for Hilinski, who was able to show his proficiency on short passes and screens against an overmatched opponent.

He will have no such luxury Saturday when the Crimson Tide come calling. Alabama (2-0) had little trouble swatting away New Mexico State 62-10 in its home opener last Saturday. Tua Tagovailoa threw all three of his touchdown passes in the first 19:52 of the game as the Tide scored the first 45 points and finished with 603 yards.

Alabama enters this contest with an 84-game winning streak against unranked FBS opponents and is playing South Carolina for the first time since a 35-21 road loss in 2010.

The Gamecocks have dropped 10 straight games to ranked opponents since upending then-No. 18 Tennessee 24-21 on Oct. 29, 2016.

Saban looking for passing game to improve as Tide hit the road

Alabama coach Nick Saban did not specifically criticize or call out Tagovailoa for poor play — how could he since the Heisman hopeful already has 563 yards and seven TD passes without an interception while completing 76.4 percent of his passes — but the always-demanding coach continues to harp on the details that turn good teams into great ones and great teams into champions.

“Tua has more knowledge and experience of the offense right now and he’s more confident in understanding not only what to do, but why it’s important to do it,” Saban said at his weekly press conference. “He’s got a lot more knowledge of what the defense is trying to do and how they’ll respond and react to certain things. That should help him in his decision-making and judgments.

“I don’t think we were real crisp in the passing game – and I’m not talking about any fault of Tua’s, but sloppy in protection, sloppy in route running, calling seven-man protections and getting too much pressure in the pocket. There’s a lot we need to clean up in the passing game.”

The good news is Jerry Jeudy’s play cancels out a lot of those missed details and a contributor the Crimson Tide scoring six touchdowns in as many red zone possessions. The junior already has 18 catches for 240 yards and four touchdowns while recording back-to-back 100-yard games.

He has cracked the century mark in seven of his last 15 games dating back to last season, but the 18 catches are the most he has ever recorded in back-to-back contests.

Defensively, Saban is concerned with South Carolina’s ground game, which has churned out 646 yards and nine touchdowns in the first two games while averaging an impressive 9.0 per carry. Some of that is obviously inflated after running it up on an overmatched FCS opponent, but the Tide coach knows his team will have to contend with an experienced offensive line capable of creating holes.

“They’re leading the SEC in rushing at 310 yards per game,” Saban noted. “They have a really good offensive line, have some really good skill players, couple of good wide receivers. I thought the freshman quarterback played flawlessly last week for the first game he’s played in. They do a lot of things on offense that are very difficult to defend.”

Alabama is 16th in total defense, yielding 233 yards per game, and third in scoring defense after limiting Duke and New Mexico State to a combined 13 points.

Can protege Muschamp be the first to topple mentor Saban?

This is the third time Muschamp — a former assistant under Saban at LSU — is facing his old boss, having lost by 28 in 2011 and by 21 in 2014 while coaching Florida. Former Saban assistants are 0-16 all-time against him, getting outscored 650-220, and Muschamp knows his team has to do most everything right to have a chance for South Carolina to defeat an AP Top five opponent since upending then-No. 5 Missouri 27-24 in 2013.

“You’ve got to beat Alabama. At the end of the day, they’re not going to beat themselves,” Muschamp said at his weekly availability. “You’ve got to have an aggressive mindset when you go into the ballgame. At the end of the day, there’s going to be four to six plays that will determine the outcome, just like every other game we play. Don’t treat it any different than any other game.”

This game is sort of a national coming out for Hilinski, whose brother Tyler — a quarterback at Washington State — committed suicide after his junior season. An autopsy revealed Ryan’s older brother had been suffering from CTE, a neurological illness which has been linked to football because of repeated hits to the head.

“He played great,” Saban said referring to the freshman. “The guy was (24-of-30), and they had a lot of yards. He certainly didn’t look like a freshman quarterback out there. He’s a good athlete, and he has a good arm. He was very accurate. He made good decisions. He got rid of the ball, he got the ball out of his hand quickly and he executed the offense extremely well.

South Carolina media policy is not to let freshmen speak to reporters, but Muschamp noted his new signal-caller is still the same guy with a first win under his belt.

“Ryan has a really good mindset. He’s a guy who comes in the building and works extremely hard and watches a lot of tape,” Muschamp said. “He’s a very confident man in his abilities. He’s got a lot of confidence about him in a very positive way.

“No different than last week and the opponent is much different, but we’ve got to play well around him. Defensively, let’s gain some field position. All of those things are all the same for every week whether it’s a veteran player or a young player being more successful.”

Muschamp is 1-11 against ranked opponents since arriving at South Carolina, and 0-6 against Top 10 teams. The Gamecocks have lost four of the last five such matchups by 21 points or more.

Notable Trends

South Carolina is:

  • 0-7-1 ATS in its last eight games after allowing less than 275 yards in the previous game.
  • 1-4 ATS in its last five games following a straight up win by 20 or more points.
  • 4-10-2 ATS in its last 16 games after allowing fewer than 20 points in the previous game.

Alabama is:

  • 5-1 ATS in its last six conference games.
  • 6-2 ATS in its last eight games after rushing for more than 200 yards in the previous game.

*****5-Star Pick*****

Alabama -15.5 1st Half (-110)

The only team to be within 16 points at halftime against Alabama in conference play last year was Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide led by an average of 28.3 points in their four SEC road games last year, and while the margin may not be that high after two quarters Sunday, they should be at least three scores ahead at halftime.

****4-Star Picks****

Alabama -25.5 (-105)

There was a rare moment of levity from Saban regarding motivation from the 2010 loss to the Gamecocks when he noted his players were in grade school when it happened. He also remembered his team “got the lining kicked out of our britches,” which is colloquial parlance for a butt-kicking.

That said, this is a matchup Alabama has been spoiling for after two non-conference games, and playing against a freshman quarterback facing his first FBS opponent in Alabama makes the Crimson Tide too good to pass up. The Gamecocks had all sorts of issues against a freshman quarterback in North Carolina’s Sam Howell in their season-opening loss, so one can only envision what Tagovailoa could do to Muschamp’s secondary.

South Carolina could very well make this competitive in the first half, but too much Tagovailoa, too much Jeudy and too much Najee Harris should turn this into an Alabama rout.

Alabama OVER 42.5 points (-115)

South Carolina yielded a lot of chunk plays to North Carolina to start the season, including four pass plays of 20 or more yards and another four running plays of 20 or more. That does not bode well against an Alabama team that averaged 7.8 yards per play in its first two contests.

Jeudy should be able to get open early and often, and while the hook is a nuisance, there is plenty of confidence in Alabama’s offense rolling up points in this contest.

***3-Star Picks***

OVER 60 points (-110)

The over is trending nicely with Alabama, hitting in eight of its last nine September games and posting a 6-1 mark in the last seven after the Crimson Tide gives up 20 or fewer in the previous contest.

The over is also 4-1 in South Carolina’s last five games against above-.500 teams, and Muschamp’s Gamecocks have yielded 33.9 points per game in their 12 matchups with ranked opponents. South Carolina will score enough points to deliver the over with a late touchdown or perhaps two with the game well out of reach.

OVER 33 points 1st Half (-110)

After resuming their early game dominance against New Mexico State, Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide should find success against a Gamecocks defense that struggled to contain North Carolina in its season opener before getting a confidence boost versus Charleston Southern.

If Alabama’s defense forces Hilinski into a turnover or two, the over should hit fairly easily if the Crimson Tide get short fields capitalizing on those miscues. Otherwise, it would probably take a Gamecocks touchdown to deliver the over, which is why there is some hesitation on being aggressive here.

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