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Picks Column: Humbled ... Or Not

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A humbled picks columnist tempers expectations ... or plows ahead with full confidence, knowing nothing can go wrong relying on, say, Oklahoma to shatter the illusion of perfection for Texas Tech and new coach Kliff Kingsbury. Photo by Jackson Laizure/Getty Images.
A humbled picks columnist tempers expectations ... or plows ahead with full confidence, knowing nothing can go wrong relying on, say, Oklahoma to shatter the illusion of perfection for Texas Tech and new coach Kliff Kingsbury. Photo by Jackson Laizure/Getty Images.

I was probably 12 years old the first time I saw the point spread in the paper and applied it to my NCAA Tournament bracket picks.

I read the sports and money sections of the Birmingham News every morning, and in between cataloging Beanie Babies (don't judge) and making fake All-Star teams with my baseball card collection, I began scrawling picks and tracking my results in messy No. 2 pencil on loose-leaf notebook paper.

The day my youngest brother was born, March 17, 2000, I sat in the waiting room of the hospital, getting the day off from high school and following my tournament picks as Mike Miller's game-winning shot helped Florida beat Butler, keeping my Michigan State-Florida championship game pick alive.

You know what? It later came true, and I finished in the 99th percentile on ESPN.com for the bracket challenge game.

I was an early sports nerd, reading Bill James on baseball and following ESPN's early version of Giant Killers for an analytical breakdown of the most likely upsets. I thought I had it pegged. I even figured I'd win the bracket challenge by the time I graduated. I was just 13, after all.

By using the point spread to guide me, throwing in a dash of plausible upsets based on analytics, studying bracket trends and watching way too much hoops, I felt confident, even cocky, against the "squares" in my speech class organizing a bracket pool in 10th grade. I snuck a hand-held TV with an antennae into school, checking the action during bathroom breaks or slipping it inside my book when I was supposed to be reading to get a score.

As a conscientious student and child, it was my greatest act of rebellion at that time.

But a funny thing happened: I lost. Not every game and not badly — I think I finished in the 80th percentile that year — but I didn't even win my class pool.

You'd think I would've learned my lesson, but it took another eight years or so for the NCAA Tournament to tip off without a goofy-looking redhead being sure I held the perfect bracket.

I still obsess over the NCAA Tournament. It's my favorite event in sports. But apparently I haven't learned my lesson on picking games.

After ripping off three consecutive weeks of 13-2 or better in this column, I started to brag. I nailed a few upsets each week and once came within a game of perfection. And then the last two weeks I finished a horrid 15-15. That's straight up, not against the spread.

College sports, for better or worse, are tilting toward parity. Same as the NFL, MLB and to a lesser extent the NBA. There are more "upsets" because the margin between, say, Vanderbilt and Georgia isn't so large that a few injuries or questionable calls can't swing the outcome.

That said, I'm feeling good this week. I'm ready for another run at perfection. Here we go.

Thursday Special

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET

Marshall 29, Middle Tennessee State 21

You could watch Kentucky get basted by an SEC team for the fourth time this season, or you could check out a watchable C-USA East matchup. Marshall and East Carolina, at the top of the division, have the offense, the quarterback and the hype. The Blue Raiders, meanwhile, have played a decent schedule, including road losses to North Carolina, BYU and North Texas and, yes, East Carolina.

But Middle Tennessee came within a touchdown of East Carolina (24-17) and covered the spread in the process. A similar Marshall offense won't shell-shock them, and the Thundering Herd are averaging just 29 points on the road (as opposed to 47 at home). A mediocre but balanced offense won't be enough for the Blue Raiders to pull an upset over a more talented team, but with a national TV audience and a short week, expect this game to be competitive.

Four-Star

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET

Oklahoma 31, No. 11 Texas Tech 27

The Red Raiders are stoked. They're in a three-way tie for the Big 12 lead under new coach and school legend Kliff Kingsbury. Oklahoma fans, by contrast, have to be tired of talented teams getting kicked off the Big 12 and BCS trains before November. After all, this is a school with expectations that rival Alabama and Texas.

The Longhorns spoiled the Sooners' season this year, while Texas Tech has scraped through a poo-poo platter of mediocrity. The Red Raiders have yet to face a team in the Top 35 of the Sagarin ratings (which rank Oklahoma at No. 15 and Texas Tech at No. 22). Kingsbury's bunch does have the nation's No. 2 pass offense, but the rookie head coach and his freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, who's missed the last two games with a knee injury, and Davis Webb have yet to win a tough road game against a good team. (Texas Tech's road wins: SMU, Kansas and West Virginia.)

Oklahoma is better than it showed against a desperate Texas team and this gives the Sooners a chance to vault themselves back into the conference hunt with Baylor on tap next. Don't count Blake Bell and the Sooners out yet for a BCS bowl.

Besides, when is the last time a Big 12 frontrunner won a big game?

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET

No. 2 Oregon 49, UCLA 28

Oregon's played just one team in the Sagarin ratings' Top 40 (Washington), and the Huskies have lost three consecutive games. The commonality? Stanford faced Washington the week before that contest, and the Cardinal beat the Bruins last week.

UCLA isn't bereft of talent, as quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Anthony Barr are stars in the Pac-12 and even nationally. In fact, the Bruins scored at least 34 points in every game until last week. Hundley barely accounted for 200 yards of total offense and threw two interceptions, but did not get much help from his receivers or offensive line against Stanford.

Expect a bounce-back from UCLA on offense this week, and Oregon likely will give them plenty of possessions, but even a solid Bruins defense isn't good enough to stop the Ducks. That's just what UCLA is: A solid team likely to prevent an unwatchable blowout for at least a half, but otherwise not good enough to slow the Pac-12's juggernaut.

Under The Radar

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET

San Jose State 38, Wyoming 31

Two middling MWC teams. Ho hum.

That is, unless you like offense. Both teams have played below expectations this season, with San Jose State getting crushed by now-injured Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton and Wyoming's run defense folding like a toothpick chair beneath an elephant in bad losses to Texas State and Colorado State.

San Jose State isn't a big running team, so while David Fales likely will put up points, the Spartans shouldn't control the clock and wear out the Cowboys. Wyoming fell behind early against CSU and Brett Smith had one of his worst games of the year, but expect a bounce-back and a typical entertaining game in the quarterback-rich Mountain West.

Smith, whom I've touted since before this site launched in April, is a poor man's Johnny Manziel/Brett Hundley who has accounted for more than 2,500 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns. Fales hasn't nearly produced like everyone expected this year and is down from last season's 4,193-yard pace, but has topped 400 yards twice in the last four games, including a 431-yard effort against Colorado State. He'll get back on track against an entertaining Wyoming.

The Rest

South Carolina 28, No. 5 Missouri 24
No. 7 Stanford 28, Oregon State 20
No. 4 Ohio State 31, Penn State 20
No. 1 Alabama 35, Tennessee 20
No. 9 Clemson 45, Maryland 21
TCU 24, Texas 21
USC 31, Utah 17
Louisville 28, South Florida 14
Houston 32, Rutgers 31
Michigan State 24, Illinois 14
Tulsa 27, Tulane 24

Last Week: 7-8
Season: 88-31

All rankings refer to Football.com's Power Dozen.