This is the start of something big. After 11 years of Joe vs. the Pro, the grand experiment 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.
JOE VS. THE PRO AND THE HERO
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 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.
WE MADE IT TO WEEK 2
Celebrate quietly with your masks on. Week 1 of the SEC football schedule was a party for everyone except the party-loving Tigers of LSU. The defending national champions let everyone know what a wild ride this 2020 college football season is all about. It’s about fear, loathing and pitfalls at the front door. Joe already fell through a chasm of disgrace. Check out last week!
Joe: 5-1 straight up, 2-4 against the spread
Pro: 4-2 straight up, 3-3 against the spread
Notes: The Hero shot out to a commanding lead in his debut after nailing Florida’s blowout of Ole Miss. No love for Joey Freshwater here. Joe is settling into his well-worn seat in the back of class.
G O O D M A N: The SEC is delivering exactly what we all needed
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 happened in the final week of the season, though. 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!
South Carolina (0-1) at No.3 Florida (1-0)
When: 11 a.m., Sat.
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.
Series: Florida leads 28-9-3.
Spread: Florida by 18.5.
Let’s go streaking: Florida two in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Gators 642 yards in their victory against Ole Miss set a school record for yards against an SEC opponent.
Joe says: This is Florida’s highest ranking since 2012, and the blowout last week at Ole Miss didn’t reveal many flaws. It did give South Carolina coach Will Muschamp some film to study, though, and the Gamecocks should have a better plan for tight end Kyle Pitts than Ole Miss’ defense. South Carolina quarterback Collin Hill is a Colorado State transfer, but he’s from South Carolina and knows what this rivalry is about. Pick-six hurt the Gamecocks in Week 1 and that turnover at the end was terrible, but this isn’t an awful team. South Carolina had a commanding lead the last time they were in The Swamp, and gave it all away. This team still has heart, but Kyle Trask looks like a Heisman candidate.
Joe’s pick: Florida 35, South Carolina 21
Pro says: This is probably the toughest game of the six-pack to handicap. On one side you have a Gators quarterback in Kyle Trask who looks to be a Heisman candidate coming off six touchdown passes, and the other is a former head coach in Will Muschamp facing his old team (and fares well 13-8 against the spread as an underdog). Gamecock quarterback Colin Hill with a game under his belt should be more than capable to keep this game close. I think this line is a little inflated because of Florida’s easy win over Mississippi, and South Carolina’s home loss versus Tennessee. Just a slight lean to the road-underdog Gamecocks, who might come in with a chip on their shoulders and a coach with a long memory.
Pro’s pick: Florida 42, South Carolina 28
Hero says: QB Kyle Trask and the Gator offense looked great in Oxford last week, but the Gamecock defense will provide a little more resistance this week. South Carolina’s offense actually looked improved last week in the loss to UT so I think they can score enough against the Gators to prevent UF from covering 18.5.
Hero’s pick: Florida UF 38, South Carolina 21
Missouri (0-1) at No.21 Tennessee (1-0)
When: 11 a.m., Sat.
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Series: Mizzou leads 5-3.
Spread: Tennessee by 10.5.
Let’s go streaking: Tennessee won last year.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 415 yards last year at Mizzou.
Joe says: Mizzou hung half a bill on Tennessee in 2017 and 2018, so there will be a revenge factor here for the Vols in their 2020 home opener despite winning last year. Tennessee is .500 at home against SEC opponents with Jeremy Pruitt, but are riding a seven-game winning streak overall. Credit the defense for the turnaround. During the streak, the Vols are allowing an average of just 17.1 points per game. Defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley (Tallasee, Ala.) is in his second year and making a name for himself. Playing a ranked opponent on the road after Alabama with a first-year coach and roster disruption due to COVID-19 is never fun, but that’s Mizzou to start the Eli Drinkwitz era. This one could get ugly.
Joe’s pick: Tennessee 35, Mizzou 17
Pro says: If you judge the Tennessee performance last week against South Carolina, they took two steps forward on offense and two backwards on defense. Missouri was dominated, and losing 35-3 until Nick Saban called off the dogs after three quarters. Missouri’s inability to settle on a quarterback could hurt them going forward. Tennessee’s biggest perceived weakness at wide receiver actually may turn into a strength as Josh Palmer and Ramel Keyton looked ready to step in and possibly make the Vol faithful forget about departed Marquez Calloway and Jauan Jennings. The Tigers aren’t the best of travelers going just 1-11 straight up and 4-8 against the spread their last 12 games away from Columbia.
Pro’s pick: Tennessee 38, Missouri 24
Hero says: Mizzou will put up a fight and keep the game competitive, but Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols have enough balance on offense and an aggressive defense that will make it difficult for a developing Mizzou offense. Like last week, I think Mizzou will score late to keep UT from covering but the Vols will continue their winning streak.
Hero’s pick: Tennessee 31, Missouri 21
Ole Miss (0-1) at Kentucky (0-1)
When: 3 p.m., Sat.
Where: Kroger Field, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Series: Kentucky leads 27-14-1.
Spread: Kentucky by 6.5.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: After its season opener against the Gators, Ole Miss noted that the Rebels had 600 total yards and 400 passing yards in an SEC game for the first time since 1969. Nice.
Joe says: Ole Miss obviously has some problems on defense, but the Rebels lead the nation in yards per completion (18.46) after one game with Lane Kiffin calling the plays. Kiffin’s offense was also 9 of 14 on third-down conversions against the Gators. More designed runs for backup quarterback John Rhys Plumlee might have helped keep Florida’s offense off the field (642 yards) in the first half, but don’t expect Kiffin to get more conservative against Kentucky. Rebels have lost seven in a row on the road and are 1-9 away dating back to 2018 (one win: Arkansas). The cupboard wasn’t bare for Kiffin in Oxford, and the streak ends here.
Joe’s pick: Ole Miss 38, Kentucky 35
Pro says: While Ole Miss’ offense is certainly more balanced than last season with quarterback Matt Corral, the Rebels faced a Florida defense last week down four starters due to injury and suspensions. With Florida winning by two-plus touchdowns on the road, and South Carolina losing at home, the number on this game is a little inflated. Gamecock quarterback Collin Hill got better as the game progressed last week against Tennessee and would have had a chance to win it if not for the punt return team touching the ball on a late punt by the Vols punt team. The Ole Miss defense had five starters returning from last year. The way they played against Florida, it looked like they had none. The Kentucky offensive and defensive lines are so much better than Mississippi’s that they should be able to control the ball and clock. One team is on the rise and the other is still an also-ran. The Kentucky-Auburn score last week was very misleading. If the officials didn’t blow the call on what appeared to be a Wildcat two-yard touchdown run right before the half, that game might have had a different outcome.
Pro’s pick: Kentucky 35, Mississippi 25
Hero says: Kentucky will have to find a way to score points to beat Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin’s diverse offense. The UK offense should have a lot more success against the Ole Miss defense than against the Auburn defense last week. If the Wildcats can manage to not turn over the football they should be able to pull out the ‘W,’ but the Rebels will keep it close all afternoon.
Hero’s pick: Kentucky 34, Ole Miss 31
Arkansas (0-1) at No.16 Mississippi State (1-0)
When: 6:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss.
TV: SEC Network Alt
Series: Arkansas leads 16-13-1.
Spread: State by 17.5.
Let’s go streaking: State three in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Mississippi State notes the following … Saturday’s matchup features the two teams that will play the toughest schedules in the nation according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) preseason ranking. Arkansas has the toughest slate, and MSU will play the second-hardest schedule in the nation in 2020. SEC teams boast 14 of the 15 strongest schedules according to FPI.
Joe says: I guess this qualifies as an “easier game” for Arkansas this season. The Razorbacks opened with No.4 Georgia, and hung around longer than anyone thought possible. With Mississippi State jumping into the AP Top 25 this week, Arkansas’ schedule now only features two unranked opponents (Ole Miss and Mizzou). I half expect Mississippi State fans who don’t have tickets for Mike Leach’s first home game to storm the campus with cowbells and rush the gates of the stadium. Time to get weird in Stark Vegas.
Joe’s pick: Mississippi State 31, Arkansas 28
Pro says: The story all week has been how good the Mississippi State offense looked with Stanford grad transfer KJ Costello at the helm and Mike Leach calling plays. What is lost is the LSU pass defense looked about as bad as a MAC team. Except for a five-minute period in the third quarter where Arkansas threw back-to-back interceptions and had a punt blocked, I thought they looked much improved. I think Arkansas — with new defensive coordinator Barry Odom (expected to employ a 3-2-6 defense) and senior running back Rakeem Boyd (a 1,000 yard rusher last season) — will be the story here in a game that could go down to the final possession.
Pro’s pick: Mississippi State 31, Arkansas 24
Hero says: Wow! What a performance last week by QB K.J. Costello and the MSU offense in Baton Rouge. Don’t expect the Pirate (Mike Leach) to stop throwing the football if the Bulldogs are up big in the fourth quarter. The Hogs will fight hard for their new coach, but I just don’t think they can slow down the Bulldog offense we saw last week.
Hero’s pick: Mississippi State 48, Arkansas 20
No.13 Texas A&M (1-0) at No.2 Alabama (1-0)
When: 2:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa
Series: Alabama leads 10-2.
Spread: Alabama by 17.
Let’s go streaking: Alabama seven in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Nick Saban is 19-0 against his former assistant coaches.
Joe says: Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is a game manager, so let’s stop expecting him to ever be the type of quarterback all the recruiting services overhyped coming out of IMG Academy. Mond is now a senior, so he has experience on his side. He accounted for three touchdowns against Alabama last year, but the Aggies still lost by 19 at home. Most of those defenders are back, though, and Vanderbilt only averaged 2.8 yards per carry last week last week. The Aggies are tough if nothing else, and might surprise some people here if they avoid turning the ball over. If Isaiah Spiller can’t run against Alabama, best of luck to the rest of the SEC.
Joe’s pick: Alabama 24, Texas A&M 18
Pro says: During the offseason I thought this might be a perfect spot for Texas A&M with 17 returning starters to break through and upset Alabama. Since that time, three key TAMU starters who aren’t even projected to go high in the draft opted out of the season and a lightly regarded Vanderbilt defense thoroughly confused four-year starter Kellen Mond. Alabama looked dominant in their opener, racing out to a 35-3 lead until Nick Saban took out the starters. Mac Jones looks more than capable as the starter with big play WR’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle ready to exploit a TAMU secondary that lost their best cover corner this summer. If Alabama gets a double-digit lead, TAMU lacks big-play weapons to play catch up (wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon opted out and the rest of the unit is inexperienced). The Aggies are also just 1-14 against the spread in the last 15 games as an SEC underdog. Roll Tide!
Pro’s pick: Alabama 45, Texas A&M 14
Hero says: Alabama showed last week at Mizzou that they still have plenty of playmakers on offense (QB Mac Jones, receivers Jaylen Waddell and DeVonta Smith and RB Najee Harris to name a few) and with the return of defensive leader LB Dylan Moses the defense looked much improved for three quarters last week. The A&M defense looked stingy against Vandy but the Aggie offense was inconsistent even though QB Kellen Mond can make some plays. TAMU has the potential to make this a four-quarter game, but the Tide will be better prepared this early in the season. As long as the backups on defense don’t give up a late score, Alabama should cover the 17 at home.
Hero’s pick: Alabama 38, Texas A&M 20
No.7 Auburn (1-0) at No.4 Georgia (1-0)
When: 6:30 p.m., Sat.
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.
Series: Georgia leads 60-56-8.
Spread: Georgia by 6.5.
Let’s go streaking: Georgia three in a row.
SUPER STAT OF THE WEEK: Bo Nix was the only SEC player to score a rushing touchdown against Georgia in 2019.
G O O D M A N: A perfect day in Auburn for Pat Dye football
Joe says: The Bulldogs offense might have struggled against Arkansas, but Georgia’s defense is loaded. They’re going to make Georgia a favorite in every game this season with maybe the exception being the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. If JT Daniels makes his debut for the Dawgs against Auburn, then we’ll know early that Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a truly desperate man. Daniels is coming off a lingering knee injury he suffered in 2019 while playing for USC. It’s no coincidence he was medically cleared the day after Georgia failed to move the ball for most of the game against the Razorbacks. This is going to be a brutally physical game, and I’m only giving the edge to Auburn here based on Bo Nix’s moxie in big games.
Joe’s pick: Auburn 20, Georgia 18
Pro says: Despite both teams playing better in the second halves of their openers, neither team was very impressive. In a game with a low total of just 45, it might come down to turnovers and who gets the better quarterback play. Auburn’s Bo Nix is less of a question mark than Georgia’s journeyman, Stetson Bennett, and USC transfer JT Daniels. No home crowd could also help the underdog. I’m also not going to back Georgia after gaining just 121 yards at 2.9 yards per carry versus an Arkansas run defense that gave up a robust 5.5 yards per carry last season. If it comes down to scoring in the red zone, I’ll back Auburn’s WRs Seth Williams and Eli Stove. To the wire!
Pro’s pick: Georgia 23, Auburn 20
Hero says: Auburn came out of last week feeling really good about their team and Georgia has heard all week how they are no longer the favorite in the East after a bad first half in Fayetteville. Look for a fired up Bulldogs team to pull out the victory, but if Auburn has the ball late then Dawgs will get a scare with the confident Tigers QB Bo Nix throwing to some talented receivers.
Hero’s pick: Georgia 27, Auburn 24