Pregame Pep Talk: Football as a healthy distraction, plus picks and X-Factors

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2014, file photo, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson walks the field during warmups before the start of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

CLEMSON – Last week’s space was dedicated to keeping football and life in perspective from a fan standpoint. This week does the same from a player’s standpoint.

I, for one, am not really shocked Appalachian State sophomore linebacker Devan Stringer will play tomorrow, just five days after the unexpected death of his newborn daughter, Noelle. The playing field is a sanctuary, and sports can be solace.

“I really appreciate all the support from my teammates up here, and the whole coaching staff and faculty, teachers that have been reaching out to me,” Stringer told the Winston-Salem Journal Tuesday. “All the support from my community back home ... has been a big help to me and my family at this time. I thank God for giving me the ability to play football, because this is helping me through it.”

Stringer is a longtime close friend of Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who’s now repaying the favors extended to him by the Stringer family from high school. Watson would stay with the Stringers when DeAnn Watson, Deshaun’s mom, was in the hospital battling tongue cancer.

“Me and his family are very close. He’s like my brother,” Watson said Monday. “I know he’s going through a hard time. He’s going to be stronger. He’s a great player, and it’s going to be fun seeing him Saturday.”

Hardcore football fans (and media) don’t want to hear it, but these guys are people. Yes, too frequently, they’re people who make bad decisions and make headlines for those bad decisions. But more often than not, they put their pants on the same as the folks watching them in the stands or on TV.

“People don’t realize what we deal with on a daily basis, the ins and outs of life,” App State coach Scott Satterfield told the WSJ. “It’s not just X’s and O’s on a football field; we’re dealing with these kids’ lives, and most of it’s off the field.”

For three and a half hours Saturday, Watson and Stringer can be kids again, putting aside their personal strife to play the game they love. It’ll be just like old times; well, except for the whole they’re-wearing-different-jerseys-and-Devan’s-trying-to-tackle-Deshaun part.

“He’s excited about coming here and playing in Death Valley,” Watson said. “It’s going to be fun and kind of weird.”

“I haven’t hit him since we were about 11 years old,” Stringer told the WSJ, “so it’s going to be fun.”

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#14 Marcus Cox, 5-10, 200, jr., RB, App State. A cool 1,520 yards (5.7 a carry) and 20 touchdowns on the ground over his last 13 games. Good tailback. Good test for Clemson’s front, five days before Brandon Radcliff.

#6 Shaedon Meadors, 6-2, 180, soph., WR, App State. A local kid to Clemson (Duncan, S.C.), Meadors isn’t even the depth chart starter. But he is labeled by the WSJ’s Brant Wilkerson-New as the Mountaineers’ best deep threat. His lanky frame might be bullied around a little bit by Clemson’s physical corners.

#56 Scott Pagano, 6-3, 295, jr., DT, Clemson. The Mountaineers like to run the ball, and run it a lot. Pagano was good enough to wrestle the starting job completely away from freshman Christian Wilkins; let’s see how long Pagano can keep it.

#15 T.J. Green, 6-3, 205, jr., FS, Clemson. Led the Tigers in tackles in week one. He’ll be very active in stopping both the run and pass.

#5 Germone Hopper, 6-0, 180, jr., WR, Clemson. He’s in line for his fifth career start Saturday; it’s intriguing that he’s deemed the better option to start than, say, Trevion Thompson, as Charone Peake is merely moving into a different formation. Hopper’s got big-game capability, with a couple of multi-TD games to his resume.

#25 Zac Brooks, 6-1, 200, jr., LB, Clemson. Although Clemson is set at running back with Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson and Tyshon Dye, Brooks is actually kind of an X-Factor for the season. Imagine if he’s back to full strength, and could be utilized in tandem with Gallman (three-down back) and Dye (goal-line guy) which might allow Davidson to be used in other ways, such as returner or change of pace. That’d be quite the group for Tony Elliott to work with.

#21 Doug Middleton, 6-0, 210, sr., S, App State. He’s listed as capable of starting at either safety spot, and he had four picks last year. Gets tackles.

#4 Mondo Williams, 5-11, 165, jr., CB, App State. A junior college transfer, who’ll look tiny next to Peake or Thompson or Deon Cain, and might not have the speed of Artavis Scott.

#32 Samaje Perine, 5-10, 230, soph., RB, Oklahoma. He had 427 yards against Kansas last year. He had five yards at halftime against Akron last week. He’ll need to venture more toward triple digits than a single digit for the Sooners to roll over Rocky Top.

#7 Leonard Fournette, 6-1, 230, soph., RB, LSU. The dynamo had a very good, but not great, freshman year. LSU’s first game was washed out, so we keep waiting to see what the prospective Heisman candidate’s got in store, even if he’ll be wearing earplugs amidst the cowbells Saturday.

#12 Tanner Mangum, 6-3, 210, fr., QB, BYU. Jesus, Joseph Smith and Hail Mary. Big chance for Mangum, replacing Taysom Hill, to get a crack at his home-state powerhouse Saturday.

#10 John Wolford, 6-1, 205, soph., QB, Wake Forest. I believe in the Wake Forest offense being far better than last year, and not just because the Demon Deacons had a head-start in 2015.

#18 Connor Cook, 6-4, 220, sr., QB, Michigan State. Primetime, Connor. Let’s see if Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and Drew Stanton are going to be upstaged someday soon on the NFL level by another Spartans quarterback.

By the way, good news for you remote controllers: there really aren’t any games worth watching Saturday that begin before 6 p.m., unless you’re into another early peek at Louisville (vs. Houston.) Makes it nice for us Clemson beat folk.

No. 19 Oklahoma at No. 23 Tennessee ~ 6 p.m., ESPN

Somehow the Sooners’ track record against the SEC became a thing – or, more so than other teams, anyhow. Oklahoma got pasted in the 2012 Cotton Bowl against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, before upsetting Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and trouncing Tennessee at home last year. Perine and Eric Striker are just two of the Sooners’ players perfectly capable of winning big games, and though the hype has followed Tennessee: teams win games, not conferences.

Brenner picks: Sooners 31, Volunteers 28

Kentucky at South Carolina ~ 7:30 p.m., SEC Network

The latest is Connor Mitch is gonna give it a go Saturday, which would be good for his confidence and South Carolina’s rhythm. Kentucky’s definitely an improved program – see: Oct. 4 last year – but South Carolina surely will look to avenge three home losses in 2014. The Gamecocks should be much better than that in The Claw.

Brenner picks: Gamecocks 24, Wildcats 19

No. 14 LSU at No. 25 Mississippi State ~ 9:15 p.m., ESPN

The Bulldogs launched their 2014 renaissance at Tiger Stadium, an insanely difficult place to win. LSU, whose jerseys haven’t been washed yet, have a chance to repay the favor against the Fightin’ Daks.

Brenner picks: Tigers 21, Bulldogs 14

No. 20 Boise State at BYU ~ 10:15 p.m., ESPN2

After the Cougars’ miracle upset at Nebraska, Boise State actually caught a bad break when BYU couldn’t quite crack the top 25 – it would’ve needed to leapfrog Mississippi State and Wisconsin – and therefore would’ve given the Broncos a much-needed opportunity to beat a ranked opponent. Remember that, if and when Boise wins with ease.

Brenner picks: Broncos 40, Cougars 27

@No. 24 Utah 30, Utah State 17 (Friday). Following up Jim Harbaugh’s visit with the Mountain West success story other than Boise State.

@Michigan 27, Oregon State 24. Lots of references to Harbaugh and Gary Andersen (old team Utah State, new team Oregon State) in this week’s scores. Don’t know what’s up with that. Anyway, Big Blue ekes out a win.

Wake Forest 28, @Syracuse 14. We’re going to spend five days next week either referring to “ACC standings leader Wake Forest” or “ACC standings leader Syracuse.” Please prepare your lives accordingly.

@No. 12 Clemson 48, Appalachian State 21. Doubling down on the near-50-point-pace, and Greg Huegel should probably get a few whacks at a field goal.

No. 9 Notre Dame 40, @Virginia 12. Guys, there’s a chance Notre Dame really is back. Only three weeks until the Irish visit Clemson.

No. 10 Georgia 35, @Vanderbilt 10. Hey, Bulldogs, try not to play down to the level of clearly the worst team in the SEC.

Iowa 26, @Iowa State 23. The last three Cy-Hawk matchups have been won by the road team. Ergo, Hawkeyes fly.

@Florida 17, East Carolina 16. Oh. OK, then. Just like that, huh? Florida’s back to being a 21-point favorite over teams that gave South Carolina some problems in its own stadium, beat Virginia Tech and North Carolina and then challenged – ahem – the Gators in a bowl game mere months ago? Not buying the Jim McElwain turnaround just yet. Gators win, but they sweat in the Swamp ‘til the final minute.

No. 13 UCLA 41, @UNLV 13. Advice, Josh Rosen: don’t go all Kenny Trill on us.

No. 7 Oregon at No. 5 Michigan State ~ 8 p.m., ABC

Michigan State has to have a little bit of Clemson complex there. Good coach, bowl results to back it up, and yet eternally failing to be really credited for whatever accomplishments come their direction. The best way to alter that perception: win on national television, beating name-brand opponents. Oregon certainly is used to the biggest of stages, and is freshest early in the year to unleash that speed. However, MSU has knocked off Baylor, Nebraska, Stanford, Ohio State and TCU – all in the last 32 months. The Spartans, 3-1 vs. top-5 teams since Thanksgiving 2013, are up to the task.

Brenner picks: Spartans 30, Ducks 27

Last week: 11-3

Best Call: Pretty good opening week for the picks. I nailed the Utah-Michigan score dead-on, almost did the same for Virginia-UCLA, and thought Boise State and Auburn would each have it difficult against Washington and Louisville.

Worst Call: I was wrong not to trust the entire SEC – Texas A&M and South Carolina each proved me as such – but how about Northwestern toppling Stanford? So long, preseason No. 8 in my poll. Maybe David Shaw’s a biiiiiiit overrated.

Track record: 11-3

That’s it for the Pep Talk. A week from right now, Clemson will either be 1-2, 2-1 or 3-0 – and there’s a good chance you’ll know pretty much everything you need to know about what kind of team the Tigers have this year.

-AB