Presto’s Picks: Crucial conference contests for Virginia, Virginia Tech, while SEC faces unseen foe

Despite what people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and 13 other Southeastern campuses tell you, the SEC is not infallible.

The best conference in the 21st century delayed its season with the purpose of playing while other leagues (namely the Big Ten) initially canceled fall football. Even after Navy began its season and the likes of Virginia and Virginia Tech were reshuffling their schedule, the world waited with baited breath for the Southeastern Conference to start playing before feeling the “real season” was underway.

But even though the SEC boasts six Top 20 teams in mid-October, they aren’t immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. It began with Vanderbilt and Missouri postponing their game; although Commodores-Tigers is the SEC version of the existential circumstance “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it.” The loss of that game would be “merely a flesh wound” in the grand scheme of things.

But then No. 10 Florida’s game with LSU was postponed after a coronavirus outbreak in the Gators’ program. The school initially said there were five, but the student newspaper, The Alligator, reported there were 19 positive tests. I know better than to argue with an Alligator.

I also know better than to tempt fate, and the fact that this game gets pushed back less than one week after Gators head coach Dan Mullen said he wanted to fill the stadium in Gainesville despite the ongoing pandemic comes straight from the Irony Department.

And to add insult to irony, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19. Saturday, the Crimson Tide host No. 3 Georgia in a potential preview of the Conference or National Championship Game. He’s hopeful he’ll be able to remain symptom-free and post enough negative tests by Saturday night’s kickoff to be on the sidelines.

Navy (2-2) at East Carolina (1-2), noon (ESPN2)

This game was originally to be televised on ESPN+, but gets the promotion after No. 8 Cincinnati’s game with Tulsa was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Bearcats program. The Mids may be 2-0 in AAC play, but their wins have come on a last-second field goal and a deflected two-point conversion. The ground game gained a season-high 251 yards in last Saturday’s win over Temple, and ECU has had trouble stopping the run this fall (allowing 208 yards per game).

The Pirates are in the second year under head coach Mike Houston, who led James Madison to the 2016 FCS National Championship. While he doesn’t have the likes of former Dukes and current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci at his disposal, ECU does have third-year starter Holton Ahlers at the controls coming off of a season-high 44 points in their win over USF. Does Navy have the firepower to keep up?

Presto’s Pick: Midshipmen fall, 35-30.

Virginia (1-2) at Wake Forest (1-2), 4 p.m. (ACC Network)

The Cavaliers try to recover from their home loss to NC State, a game in which they failed to register a sack. Wake may allow over four sacks per game so far this fall, but the majority of the Demon Deacons’ issues are on defense: Out of the conference’s 15 total teams, they rank 12th in the ACC at stopping the run, 13th against the pass and 14th in getting off of the field on third down. The question for the Cavaliers is whether Brennan Armstrong (concussion) be able to return to the field — if not, Lindell Stone (240 yards and three touchdowns against the Wolfpack) gets the start. But it’s not the passing game that concerns me; the 14th-best running attack in the ACC has been consistently uneven this autumn.

Kippy & Buffy strive for consistency in their socially distanced tailgate. And you can’t get more consistent than a bottle of St. Francis Claret; the 2017 vintage is a blend of merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot grapes. “This charismatic wine entices the nose with a brilliant spark of dried cranberry, underlined by savory cherry compote and a captivating forest musk. The elevated acidity on the finish is glycerol keeping the final hints of fruit vivid as they diminish.” Another loss would diminish the preseason optimism in a vivid manner.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers come up short, 36-28.

No. 23 Virginia Tech (2-1) vs. Boston College (3-1), 8pm (ACC Network)

Almost 20 years after both schools bolted the Big East, this still has a non-ACC flavor. Instead of the clam chowder of Chestnut Hill, the flavor this year is the smoked turkey of Blacksburg: the Hokies have won eight of the last 12 games in this series, but have lost in two of the last three games played at Lane Stadium.

In this battle of the birds, the ground-bound Hokies lead the conference in running the ball (299.3 yards per game and 6.5 per carry), while the Eagles should stay in the air (last in the league with 60.3 rushing yards per game and 1.9 per attempt). Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec has fit in well at BC, completing 65% of his passes while throwing for at least 300 yards three times this fall. Hendon Hooker led the Hokies offense to 31 second-half points last week; he’ll have a full four quarters this week.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies bounce back, 33-17.

No. 2 Alabama (3-0) vs. No. 3 Georgia, 8 p.m. (CBS)

We come full circle with the game of the week — and of the early season. Perhaps it’ll be the game of the year, but as we all know a “Game of the Century” can legally only be a No. 1 vs. No. 2.

While these two schools have met just once in the regular season since 2008, they’ve made up for it with December drama and January thrills: both of their SEC Championship Game showdowns have been one-possession affairs, while their duel for the National Championship went into overtime.

At first glance, this is a match up between quarterbacks Mac Jones and Stetson Bennett IV — and, let’s be honest, you probably can’t get two better named QB’s for their respective schools. Jones is completing almost 80% of his passes this year, while Bennett has yet to throw an interception. But the real star of the show is Alabama head coach Nick Saban; even if he’s not able to be on the sidelines, his shadow looms large. And the Southeastern Conference remains his personal playpen.

Presto’s Pick: Crimson Tide rolls, 34-24.

Last Week: 2-2.
Overall: 15-9.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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