Will Johnny Manziel be cleared to play in Texas A&M's opener against Rice?  Check out our preview and free pick for one of the opening week bigger NCAA odds mismatches.

One of the things I missed the most when the Southwest Conference broke up was seeing the Rice Owls and Texas A&M play football. It was pretty much an annual junket for me dating back to the 60s, and it was always a great show between schools less than 100 miles apart on the map, but otherwise polar opposites every which way to Sunday.

Image previewSo naturally, seeing the Owls and Aggies scheduled for the first time in 18 years had me excited when the 2013 college football betting schedule first came out. That excitement has been tempered a bit with the whole Johnny Manziel mess, something that has definitely had an early effect on the NCAAF odds.

Kyle Field will be full regardless of who is at QB for Texas A&M when Rice comes to College Station on the season's first Saturday (Aug. 31). ESPN is planning to put the game in your living room or man cave starting at 1 PM (ET), and the spread has come down four points from when the Aggies started at -31.5. A few offshore betting outlets have it at 26.5, with some spots in Vegas taking it off the board.

Question No. 1: Will #2 Play?

Is Manziel going to play? That's the $64,000 question, and while everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, nobody has the answer two weeks from kickoff. The Heisman Trophy winner has been practicing and taking snaps as if nothing's wrong, but we all know how quickly that can change.

Being something of a pessimist -- nearly six decades rooting for the Aggies will do that to a person -- my guess is he won't play. If that's the case, Matt Joeckel steps in behind five new starters on the offensive line and a bevy of new receivers. Joeckel, whose twin brother Luke was a 1st-rd NFL pick last April by Jacksonville, is not the running threat (putting it mildly) that Manziel is, but the good news is A&M has a talented group of tailbacks led by Ben Malena.

David Bailiff, entering his seventh season as Rice's head coach, and defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond would no doubt prefer to face the Aggies sans Manziel. The Owls can take advantage of Texas A&M's inexperience on the line, [;us they have DB's to hang with the new Aggie receivers, led by cornerback Phillip Gaines.

Bailiff and the Owls faced Kevin Sumlin's UH teams four times (2008-11) and split those games. Granted, Sumlin and the Cougars twice put up 73 on Rice, but also gave up more than 36 per.

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Aggies Breaking In New Faces On Defense

Three big players on the defensive side are gone from College Station, and replacing end Damontre Moore plus LB's Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart won't be easy. Sophomores Julien Obioha and Alonzo Williams are the key figures up front, while juniors Donnie Baggs and Tommy Sanders try to fill the LB holes.

The Aggies do have experience in the secondary, led by corners Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris. But Everett and Floyd Raven, expected to be the starting strong safety, are facing disciplinary actions of their own and could miss the game against Rice plus several more.

Rice is returning the corps of its specialty positions on offense -- QB Taylor McHarque, RB Charles Ross and WR Jordan Taylor. The Owls were very well-balanced in 2012 with McHarque passing for over 2,200 yards and running for 667 more, and didn't have any problem putting points on the board (31.8 ppg overall, 39 per game last five).

Owls Look To Break 15-Game Jinx Vs. Aggies

Since series history means little after an 18-year layoff, I decided to bring my mom into the conversation for some of the research. She wasn't sure, but 1964 did sound like the first time we'd gone to an Aggies-Owls game in Houston. Mama Bee was always more into the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band at halftime anyway, and what I recall is the '64 Ags were one sorry-ass team.

The Aggies do lead the all-time series 50-27-3 with a 15-game win run intact, including several close calls during the streak that A&M was a big favorite. There will be a vocal contingency of Rice fans, a very vocal contingency, at Kyle Field, and they will make themselves heard despite what it might sound like on the television or other media devices.

Picking a college football game when you know which players are starting is difficult enough; not knowing who QB's the side favored by nearly four touchdowns makes it damn near impossible. If Manziel plays, I don't suspect he'll be bothered by the whole autograph mess while he's on the field. That inexperienced line and/or group of receivers may hold him back, but Johnny Football isn't going to be distracted himself.

But whether it's Manziel or Joeckel running the A&M offense, I do like Rice putting up some points. The Owls plus the points is my free college football pick.

My pick: Rice +27.5 (-110) at Will Hill