Hoge: The Football Column, Week 1

J.J. Watt takes the field before a game in 2015. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

J.J. Watt takes the field before a game in 2015. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Introducing a brand new column designed to get you ready for a full weekend of football — Chicago Bears, college and the rest of the NFL, with an eye always on the next NFL Draft:

J.J. Watt was absolutely devastated when Wisconsin lost to TCU in the 2011 Rose Bowl. I remember the scene vividly. A silent locker room. A tearful postgame press conference.

“We know how much this means to everybody, to everybody involved,” Watt said. “We work 365 days a year for this, and then we come out here and don’t execute…”

The star defensive end trailed off. Overcome by emotion, he couldn’t finish his thought.

Inside, Watt likely knew it was his last college game. While he had not made the final decision to leave a year early, it was a foregone conclusion Watt was headed to the NFL, a decision that, today, can easily be classified as a no-brainer.

I covered Watt’s entire college career at Wisconsin and it was essentially a sneak peak of his NFL career. Under recruited, Watt started as a tight end at Central Michigan before gambling and accepting a walk-on offer at Wisconsin as a defensive end. Before he ever played a down (he had to sit out a year), Watt was already a star inside the program. He dominated Wisconsin’s practice squad in 2008, earned a scholarship, and by the time he saw the field in 2009, everyone was asking: How did so many schools miss this guy?

To a lesser extent, the same can be said about the 2011 NFL Draft, as Watt wasn’t drafted in the Top 10. Granted, eight Pro Bowlers (including Cam Newton and Von Miller) were drafted ahead of Watt, but the Titans and Jaguars look especially silly for taking Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert instead of the league’s most dominant defensive player.

Watt hasn’t missed a game his entire NFL career. His combination of size, athleticism and Jordan-like obsession to be the best have fueled him since his days as a tight end at Central Michigan.

“I feel like I owe that not only to my teammates and coaches, but to the fans,” Watt said this week on a conference call. “I have a lot of pride in myself. I want to do that for myself. I never want to sit out if I can find a way to play.”

That’s why it seemed doubtful Watt would ever miss Sunday’s opener against the Bears, even when offseason back surgery threatened his perfect streak.

“I was a fan once too,” he said. “I grew up watching these teams and I know what it’s like to be a fan. You want to see your best players out there. You want to see your favorite players out there and I realize they pay me a lot of money to play this game.”

Great for the fans. Not so great for the Bears.

Three Key Questions: 

1. Will Kevin White play? The rookie(ish) wide receiver popped up on the injury report Thursday with a hamstring injury. He seemed OK in the locker room, but so did Alshon Jeffery all of last season. Usually when a player shows up on the injury report mid-week, it means he suffered the injury that day. White’s participation in Friday’s practice will tell us a lot more.

2. Can the Bears’ shuffled offensive line hold up? I actually think this offensive line has a lot of potential, but the Bears are about to go up against one of the best front-7s in the league with a brand  new left guard (Josh Sitton), a rookie center (Cody Whitehair) with almost zero experience at the position, and a right guard (Kyle Long) dealing with a shoulder injury. This could either go very well or very poorly.

3. Who is returning punts and kicks? If Deonte Thompson (ankle/knee) is good to go, then he will handle kick return duties, but if he’s not, it’s anyone’s guess. Head coach John Fox confirmed that they are looking at recently claimed rookie Cre’Von LeBlanc’s return ability, but also said they added him primarily for his defensive skills. The guess here is that Eddie Royal handles punt returns.

Prediction: Texans 23, Bears 20. I expect the Bears to be very competitive and would not be surprised if they steal a win, but don’t underestimate the Texans — this is good football team. I don’t have very much faith in Brock Osweiler, however, and I think the Bears will be able to force two turnovers to keep them in the game. Don’t be surprised if new Bears kicker Connor Barth plays a crucial role in the outcome.

Season Prediction: 8-8. The Bears won’t be an easy-out for any opponent this year and I believe they will show positive progress. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are 7-5 headed into the final four games of the season, but that’s a tough stretch with two road games against the Lions and Vikings and two home games against the Packers and Redskins. With an amazing year of health, I could see the Bears potentially winning nine or even 10 games, but the depth is limited and they are also a few key injuries away from being a five-win team or worse. Chances are, they’ll be somewhere in the middle and I think 8-8 is realistic.

Around the League

Watch out for the Jaguars hosting the Packers this week. The Packers have had some Week 1 clunkers under Mike McCarthy and the Josh Sitton release seemed to rattle the locker room a little bit. The Jaguars are an improving team and I like them to at least cover the +5.0 they are getting at home … A straight-up upset I like: the Bills on the road at Baltimore (-3.0) … Two days after Kyle Long got his new money, the Steelers re-upped David DeCastro on a six-year deal that will reportedly pay him around $10 million a year. DeCastro was already in his fifth-year rookie option, so he will make more money than Long in 2016, but moving forward, their contracts appear to be pretty similar … Just in case you needed a reminder, DeCastro was drafted five picks after the Bears took Shea McClellin No. 19 overall in 2012 … How excited is Northwestern about Trevor Siemian winning the Broncos’ starting quarterback job? There were multiple Trevor Siemian Broncos jerseys in the stands at Ryan Field last Saturday … In the wake of at least five helmet-to-helmet hits on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton Thursday night, I propose a new rule that two helmet-to-helmet hits by one player in a game results in an automatic ejection. Why not one? As we’ve seen in the college game, there’s too much gray area and interpretation. Not all helmet-to-helmet hits are on purpose, but players need to be held accountable …  Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had his knee surgery performed Thursday. According to the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin, the surgery was performed by in Dallas by Cowboys surgeon Dr. Daniel Cooper, who also did former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith’s knee surgery in January … Bears head coach John Fox’s take on the recent National Anthem protests: “We strongly encourage (our players) to pay respect to the anthem. It’s not anything we can mandate, but we strongly recommend it. So far, that’s been the case.” … Just for fun, my Super Bowl pick: Patriots over the Cardinals. I think the Cardinals beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship and the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

NFL Draft Game Of The Week

Virginia Tech at Tennessee (-11.5) — 7 p.m. CT on ABC 

This game is being played inside Bristol Motor Speedway, but that’s not the only reason it’s worth watching. Virginia Tech made a tremendous coaching hire, grabbing Justin Fuente from Memphis, and the Hokies must be thinking upset after watching Tennessee struggle against Appalachian State. But the Vols are loaded and should come back with a much better performance. Both teams possess plenty of NFL talent.

NFL prospects to watch:

Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton
Tennessee OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford
Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges

The Saturday Itinerary

After “The Greatest Opening Weekend In College Football History,” maybe ESPN will promote this weekend as the “The Worst Week 2 in College Football History.” The second weekend is usually a lot weaker, but this is really bad.

Here’s what I would be watching if I was sitting on my couch all day:

11 a.m. (ABC) — Penn State at Pittsburgh (-5.0)

It’s been 16 years since these two teams played, but this is actually one of college football’s oldest and fiercest rivalries. It’s good to see Penn State show willingness to play Pitt again, but the Nittany Lions might regret it as they are actually five point underdogs.

NFL prospect to watch: Pitt OT Adam Bisnowaty

Alternate Games: Cincinnati at Purdue (+6.0) on BTN, UCF at No. 5 Michigan (-35.5) on ABC

2:30 p.m. (CBS) – Kentucky at Florida (-16.5)

This is best we can do in the afternoon — a 16.5 point spread in the SEC. Kentucky blew a 35-10 lead to Southern Miss in its opener, so maybe you should just take a nap instead. Still, there’s always talent worth watching on Florida and something tells me this game will be closer than it should be.

NFL prospect to watch: Florida CB Teez Tabor

Alternate games: Nevada at No. 18 Notre Dame (-28.0) on NBC, Illinois State at Northwestern (no spread) on BTN

6 p.m. (ESPN) – Arkansas at No. 15 TCU (-7.5)

Arkansas has a lot of talent, but they didn’t show too well in the opener, beating Louisiana Tech 21-20. That’s part of the reason why TCU is such a big favorite in a game I think is pretty even. The Frogs weren’t much better last week, giving up 41 points to South Dakota State.

NFL prospect to watch: Arkansas LT Dan Skipper

Alternate games (both 6:30 p.m. starts): UNC at Illinois (+7.5) on BTN, BYU at Utah (-3.5) on FOX

The Nightcap: 9 p.m. (FS1) — Texas Tech at Arizona State

Upset Alerts:

USC (-16.5) at home against Utah State
North Carolina at Illinois (+7.5)
Iowa (-15.0) at home against Iowa State

The Top 10

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also co-hosts The Beat, weekends on 720 WGN. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.