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Out of touch, or big-time bubble?

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 1:14 a.m. CDT

College football coaches are always finding new ways to fire up their players before big games. But the tried and true method of keeping their kids' eyes on the prize often relates to a "bubble" around the team.

By the time they get to college, most players have heard every coach they've ever had talk to them about not believing the hype and not reading their own press clippings.

Especially when you get to high-profile players in top-tier programs, this message has sunk in so deeply that it's almost second nature to them not to worry about what's going on outside the team.

In many ways, it's an incredibly important tool in a coaching staff's arsenal. What better way to keep your student-athletes' focus on the here and now – not to mention the upcoming opponent – than ignore all the things being written/said/thought about them and their teammates?

However, sometimes you have to shake your head in awe at how out of touch some of these kids really are.

Take AJ McCarron, for example. The Alabama quarterback has a pair of national championships under his belt, and just about everybody in the college football world has the Crimson Tide on the (very) short list of teams who could win it all this season.

McCarron seems pretty straight-laced. He's never been in trouble with the law, never been hinted about inappropriate benefits, never made an idiot out of himself in post-championship celebrations. Heck, he never even flinched when his girlfriend – a former Miss Alabama – made national news during and just after last January's national title game when she was pointed out and fawned over by Brent Musberger during the broadcast.

But something he apparently told the TV broadcasters before the Tide's Week 1 win over Virginia Tech left me scratching my head … and rewinding the TiVo to make sure I heard it right.

About midway through the first quarter, the announcers were talking about Alabama's adjustment to four new offensive linemen and a new running back. Granted, the new guys are probably just as talented as the guys who graduated – and were drafted into the NFL – but it was still a valid point being made about how even the Tide have some questions marks.

That's when one of the TV guys pipes up and says that McCarron said he and his teammates "wanted to prove to all the doubters" how good they still were.

It made me wonder what doubters McCarron was referring to. The Tide are just the fifth team in the history of the AP preseason poll to get more than 50 first-place votes – they got 58 of a possible 60 – and pretty much every preseason prognostication was already handing the crystal football trophy to Alabama.

I mean, I guess there are the two doubters who didn't vote for the Tide, and maybe some homers around the country who believe that the Big Ten or Pac-12 or Big 12 or even ACC is the strongest conference in the country.

But I would bet that the list of Alabama doubters is about one-one hundredth the size of the Tide believers.

I'm not making fun of the kid, so please don't read it that way. I guess all I can think is that Nick Saban and his coaches and support staff have done such a good job of keeping their players locked in the "bubble" that maybe McCarron and his teammates really don't have any idea how many people are picking them to win it all.

But man, that's a pretty thick bubble.

What it really tells me is that the greatest motivating tool any coach has is keeping that seemingly ever-present chip on the players shoulders – even the players who have no reason to wear such a chip in the first place.

Whatever works, I guess. But that sure is some potent Kool-Aid to feed to college kids.

Wonder where I can get some.

No. 16 UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

TV: ABC

Line: Nebraska by 4˝

What's up: This is an interesting matchup, just because of the way these teams go about things. The Bruins are 7th in in the country in rushing yards, while the Huskers are 8th; UCLA is 26th in passing, while Nebraska is 94th. It's always hard to pick against the Huskers at home.

My pick: Nebraska 31-27

No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Kyle Field, College Station

TV: CBS

Line: Alabama by 7˝

What's up: The Tide were surprised by Johnny Football last year. They won't be this year. Manziel will play well, but A.J. McCarron – and the Alabama defense – will play better.

My pick: Alabama 31-21

Tennessee at No. 2 Oregon

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene

TV: ABC

Line: Oregon by 27˝

What's up: The Ducks are faster, smoother and more talented than the Volunteers. Throw in an experienced offense running a hyper-fast-break style, and it's no wonder Oregon is putting up video game-type scores again this year.

My pick: Oregon 56-21

No. 19 Washington vs. Illinois

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Soldier Field, Chicago

TV: BTN

Line: Washington by 9˝

What's up: The Illini were impressive in the dismantling of a solid Cincinnati team last week. The Huskies held serve at home against Boise St in Week 1, and are coming in off a bye week … so they'll be ready for whatever Illinois throws at them.

My pick: Washington 31-10

Iowa at Iowa State

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jack Trice Stadium Ames

TV: FoxSports1

Line: Iowa by 2˝

What's up: This one's in here for old time's sake. Neither team has been terribly impressive so far, though the Hawkeyes beat their FCS foe (Missouri State) while the Cyclones lost to theirs (Northern Iowa). Expect a close game, with whomever makes the fewest mistakes coming out on top.

My pick: Iowa 20-17

No. 4 Ohio State at Cal

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: California Memorial Stadium, Berkeley

TV: Fox

Line: 16

What's up: It's a long road trip for the Buckeyes, but the Bears couldn't handle Northwestern in Week 1 … and Ohio State's attack is like the Wildcats' on steroids.

My pick: Ohio State 38-14

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