NCAA Football Best Bets For Week 1

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College Football Best Bets for Week 1: Is the Georgia-Clemson line done moving?​

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A primetime, top-five showdown of the Georgia Bulldogs and Clemson Tigers is expected to generate the most betting handle of any game this weekend but it's not a situation that instills fear into the oddsmakers. Sharp money has already driven this number down from Clemson -4 to -3, and now the recreational bettors will take it from here and represent a giant portion of the handle.

"It will definitely be public money," FanDuel communications director Kevin Hennessy told ESPN. "We typically see interest starting Thursday and it then becomes a crescendo into Saturday night. You'll see people who take their winnings from early games and play them into Saturday evening games."

Season openers operate on a unique timeline, given the odds have been posted throughout the summer. After this weekend, a game will typically move throughout the week but for this clash, oddsmakers do not expect any more sharp action. "I think the line is just going to stay at three," said Ed Salmons, Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook vice president of oddsmaking and risk management, sharing that almost all of the SuperBook's handle will arrive this weekend.

Georgia has encountered numerous injuries during training camp and some at key positions but that should not induce any line movement. "Teams like Georgia and Alabama, when a guy gets hurt, the guy behind him is probably better," Salmons said. "They just recruit at such a high level. They can almost field two teams. Same with Clemson." -- Doug Kezirian


Every Thursday during the college football season, betting analysts Doug Kezirian, Bill Connelly, Tyler Fulghum, Joe Fortenbaugh and David M. Hale will provide their top plays across the college football landscape.

Here are their best bets for Week 1 of the college football season.

Note: Lines from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill as of Wednesday (unless otherwise indicated).

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Thursday's games​

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Temple Owls at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (-14, 51.5), 6:30 p.m. ET​

Fortenbaugh: All hail the return of head coach Greg Schiano, who took a 2-10 squad from 2019, navigated his way through a pandemic with very little offseason time to improve his roster and finished last year 3-6 with a triple overtime loss to Michigan. Schiano now has a full offseason of work under his belt and 21 returning starters at his disposal. Meanwhile, the Owls are coming off a brutal 1-6 season in which they were outscored by an average of 20.5 points per game in their six defeats. Look for Schiano and the Scarlet Knights to make an early statement.

Pick: Rutgers -14




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East Carolina Pirates vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers (-10.5, 56), 7:30 p.m. ET in Charlotte, NC​

Kezirian: This is one of those picks that could be horrendous or even induce some flexing with an outright upset. That's the beauty of Week 1; no one truly knows what the season will hold, especially off a COVID-19 shortened season. However, with all that being said, East Carolina returns numerous key players, including senior quarterback Holton Ahlers. He can make plays with his arm and legs and also has a flare for the dramatic. I love betting on him and hate betting against him. As for Appalachian State, the Mountaineers have transitioned smoothly to FBS and displayed some potent offenses along the way, which could pose serious problems for a shaky Pirates defense. However, App State unveils a new quarterback in transfer Chase Brice, who started his career at Clemson before transferring to Duke. This neutral site game could go in a lot of different directions but I prefer the known over the unknown, particularly in the opener.

Pick: ECU +10.5


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No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (-14, 63.5) at Minnesota Golden Gophers, 8 p.m. ET​

Fortenbaugh: How much does Ohio State want to put on tape knowing a marquee showdown with Oregon looms next week? Further, if the Buckeyes find themselves with a sizeable lead in the second half of this matchup, how long will the starters play knowing, again, the Ducks are on deck? Look at last Saturday's UCLA-Hawaii game as an example, as the Bruins hung 31 points in the first half and then throttled back big time, scoring only 13 points in the second half knowing a date with LSU was waiting in the wings. Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck wants to run the ball at all costs and I think Buckeyes boss Ryan Day is going to feature a heavy dose of running back TreVeyon Henderson.

Pick: Under 63.5 points


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Bowling Green Falcons at Tennessee Volunteers (-37, 60.5)​

Kezirian: We've heard the narrative about Tennessee in rebuild mode, having lost numerous transfers and bringing in a new coach. That is certainly the case but it will all rear its ugly head come conference play. This opener is about injecting optimism by bullying a bad team, and I expect Josh Heupel to move up and down the field against a horrendous Bowling Green defense. The Vols should hang at least 50 in a game that will make U.T. fans happy for at least a week.

Pick: Tennessee team total over 48


 

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Friday's game

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Duke Blue Devils (-6.5, 60.5) at Charlotte 49ers, 7 p.m. ET

Hale: The trend line in Durham is pointing in the wrong direction. David Cutcliffe raised the program from the dead, but the past two seasons have been a disaster, and 2020 sure looked close to rock bottom. But much of the struggles could be related back to one big issue: The quarterback. Or, more specifically, the QB's turnovers. Duke was solid on defense, was the ACC's best on special teams, and had a genuine star in running back Mateo Durant. But when a team turns the ball over 14 more times than any other team in the country -- well, that's tough to overcome.

Now, the Blue Devils have a new QB (Gunnar Holmberg) and a fresh start in 2021. Will they be much better? Your mileage here may vary, but there's no reason to assume they've fallen so far as to be favored by less than a TD against Charlotte. Even during last year's misery, Duke still whipped the 49ers 53-19 in Durham, and while this one will be played on the road, it's not exactly a hostile environment.

Then keep this in mind: Under Cutcliffe, Duke is 28-4 against teams outside the Power 5, with an average margin of victory of 23 points. The Blue Devils are 8-1 against the spread in their last nine openers. They're 22-7 ATS outside the ACC since 2014. There's really not a number that suggests this game is anything other than a blowout. Load up on Duke in Week 1, then maybe keep away from the Blue Devils until basketball season.

Pick: Duke -6.5


 

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Saturday's games

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No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers (-5.5, 50), Noon ET

Hale: Graham Mertz looked like a burgeoning star two games into the 2020 season. Then the wheels came off. Over Wisconsin's next five games, the Badgers averaged just .76 points per drive that didn't start with a turnover. After completing 20-of-21 passes in his first start against Illinois, Mertz mustered just 57% completions, 5.6 yards-per-pass, four TDs and five picks the rest of the way. I'm not sold he's a markedly better QB today.

Penn State, meanwhile, ended last year red hot. Sean Clifford found his groove. And more importantly, the Nittany Lions pushed past a remarkable run of awful luck. In the past five seasons, there are just 11 examples of a Power 5 team out-gaining its opponent by 200 yards and losing. It happened to Penn State twice last season.

For the most part, I'm avoiding putting too much emphasis on 2020 -- a weird year with a smaller-than-usual sample size that probably doesn't have much impact on 2021. But follow the trend lines here. Penn State is heading in the right direction. Wisconsin? I'm not so sure.

Pick: Penn State +5.5


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Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Wolverines (-17, 67), Noon ET

Connelly: Thanks to solid recent history and recruiting, SP+ sees Michigan as a solid bounce-back candidate this year. And since it's impossible to separate we humans from all the Harbaugh drama, I'm taking that thought pretty seriously. But even if you have already sold all your Michigan stock and aren't interested in buying more ... 67 points is a really high number!! SP+ loved WMU's offense last year (it ranked 28th) and gives the Broncos a solid chance of hitting 20+ points against a remodeled Michigan defense but still only projects 59 total points in this one. Only three of the last 20 Michigan games have topped 67 points, and I'm struggling to think this one will make it four in 21.

Pick: Under 67 points

Fulghum: Michigan has done very little in the Jim Harbaugh era to inspire confidence, mostly because he hasn't found an elite starting QB. Western Michigan has exactly that in Kaleb Eleby. Eleby was No. 3 in the nation in pass efficiency last season behind only Mac Jones and Zach Wilson -- two 1st round NFL Draft picks. He accounted for 22 TD (4 rush) and just 2 INT. Harbaugh just named Cade McNamara his starter for Week 1 against the Broncos, but it's Western Michigan that will have the best QB on the field... and a 17-point head start.

Pick: Western Michigan +17.0


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Stanford Cardinal at Kansas State Wildcats (-3, 53), Noon ET

Fortenbaugh: Year 3 of the Chris Klieman experience in Manhattan begins with 10 starters back on an offense that averaged just 26.6 points per game last season, but did spring an upset on the road at Oklahoma. Look for this unit to take a sizeable step forward in 2021. Believe it or not, the Wildcats opened as the underdog for this matchup prior to a deluge of Kansas State money that forced the number to move four points. The primary reason? There is very little faith in the betting market when it comes to Stanford's prospects for a successful 2021 campaign. Despite a 4-2 record in 2020, the Cardinal were on the right side of some very fortunate breaks and, to be honest, it's starting to look like the program's way of playing offense might not work on a consistent basis in the modern era. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm willing to bet that opinion right off the bat this season.

Pick: Kansas State -3


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No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers at No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes (-3, 45), 3:30 p.m. ET

Fulghum: One of the most intriguing conference matchups we'll see in Week 1 is Indiana at Iowa. The Hoosiers are hoping to build off an incredible 2020 season where they were 6-1 SU and 7-0 ATS in Big Ten play. While researching this game, I discovered a trend I think we can lean into against the total: Iowa is 9-2 to the under at Kinnick Stadium in the past two seasons. Michael Penix Jr. is coming off knee surgery. We know Kirk Ferentz wants to control the clock and line of scrimmage by running the ball. Even though the number is dropping (I wouldn't play it below 45.0) I think we can try to ride that trend of low-scoring games involving the Hawkeyes at home.

Pick: Under 45


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West Virginia Mountaineers (-3, 57) at Maryland Terrapins, 3:30 p.m. ET

Connelly: This is basically a "how confident are you in Maryland?" game. West Virginia should be a top-40 or so team this season, with continuity on offense offsetting what was a decent amount of turnover on defense. But in two seasons under Mike Locksley, Maryland has been either great or terrible in nearly every game, rarely in between. (Their last two season openers: a 79-0 win and a 43-3 loss.) They're loaded with experience, and they both threw and defended the pass well on average last season. If they can generate any semblance of reliability, they could be in for a 4-0 start.

SP+ projects a 28-24 Terps win, and I feel decent about that.

Pick: Maryland +3


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UMass Minutemen at Pittsburgh Panthers (-38, 56), 4 p.m. ET

Kezirian: UMass football just might be the poster boy for the point spread serving as the great equalizer. The Minutemen have managed just one win over the past two seasons and have ranked among the worst in FBS. However, this is a new era in Amherst. Head Coach Walt Bell took advantage of the new transfer rules by rebuilding his entire backfield, bringing in a quarterback and two running backs. The starting QB is a 6'5" Colorado transfer Tyler Lytle and he should be able to put up enough points. When you're catching 38 points, all you need is about two touchdowns or so. I think we see that, even if it comes in garbage time.

Plus, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is old school and won't look to run up the score. On top of that, he will likely remove his starters early, turning his attention to next week's big game at Tennessee. And perhaps most importantly, Pitt's offensive coordinator is Mark Whipple, who recently preceded Bell at UMass. The last thing he wants to do is embarrass his former program.

Pick: UMass +38

Hale: Let me preface this pick by saying that, just a week ago, I wagered actual American currency on UConn. It's possible I am a masochist. Nevertheless, let's talk UMass.

Why would anyone bet on the Minutemen? It's a good question. UMass has won just one of its last 18 games. It hasn't topped 10 points in a game since 2019. It is, by any reasonable measure, an awful team. But, of course, UMass doesn't need to win in Week 1. It needs to not lose by more than 38. And here's the important thing to remember: UMass's Week 1 opponent, Pitt, doesn't beat anyone by 38.

OK, that's not entirely true. In the past decade, Pitt has four wins by 38 or more -- with three of them coming against FCS opponents. In that same time span, however, the Panthers have a 3-point win over Delaware, and a 7-point and an 8-point win over Youngstown State. Indeed, Pitt's blowouts are few and far between. Another fun fact on Pitt: It has struggled to run the ball for the past two years, relying heavily on its passing game behind QB Kenny Pickett. You know what UMass's one big strength is? Its secondary, led by sophomore Josh Wallace and Notre Dame transfer Noah Boykin. The pair allowed just 13 completions and two TDs on 246 coverage snaps last season.

Pitt will win. It may win easily. But it won't win by 38.

Pick: UMass +38
 

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Saturday's games



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San Jose State Spartans at No. 15 USC Trojans (-14, 59.5), 5 p.m. ET

Connelly: Of the many, many teams I'm excited about finally getting to see in action, USC's near the top of the list. Kedon Slovis had a bit of a sophomore slump last year as opponents forced him to dink and dunk and stay patient, and three of the Trojans' five wins were by five or fewer points. But even though he was baited into mistakes, USC was still mostly good offensively, and their defense improved quite a bit.

SJSU should be the perfect team to test just how far they've come -- the Spartans have a solid, veteran QB in Nick Starkel and a plus pass rusher in Cade Hall. SP+ projects a 41-18 win for USC, and while that feels a little too USC-friendly for my tastes, that does offer solid cushion with the 14-point line.

Pick: USC -14


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Syracuse Orange (-1.5, 55.5) at Ohio Bobcats, 7 p.m. ET

Kezirian: This is a tricky game because I do think we see a strong effort from Ohio on its home field at night. However, the key is Syracuse's offensive line and I believe that weakness has been addressed. The Orange landed a transfer and this team could not protect or run block in the past but I am expecting a significantly improved offense. I prefer Tommy DeVito to be QB1 but Dino Babers announced DeVito will split time with Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader. DeVito can do damage on the ground but both will thrive with a strong wide receiver unit.

Ohio's Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rodgers will also split time and while they thrived last year, we do not really know what to expect. The pandemic limited the Bobcats to just three games and two of those came against MAC doormats Akron and Bowling Green. Frank Solich has retired but Ohio returns experienced skill position players that should make this an exciting game. In the end, the 'Cuse should get the win and cover.

Pick: Syracuse -1.5


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Baylor Bears (-13.5, 53.5) at Texas State Bobcats, 7 p.m. ET

Connelly: I feel like Vegas as a whole has been a bit too low on Baylor this year. BU Over 5.5 wins was one of my favorite win total picks, and in this game, the SP+ projection of Baylor by 17.5 makes a lot more sense than -13.5. The Bears have a new starting QB in Gerry Bohanon, but he was a four-star recruit, and his receiving corps is really exciting.

Really, the only thing that gives me hesitation here is the fact that Texas State's all-in-on-transfers recruiting approach makes the Bobcats a bit of a wildcard. I doubt it's going to make them awesome or anything, but it does make them pretty unscoutable. It wouldn't surprise me if BU struggled for a while, but winning by two touchdowns still feels like a solid bet.

Pick: Baylor -13.5


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No. 16 LSU Tigers (-3, 65) at UCLA Bruins, 8:30 p.m. ET

Fortenbaugh: UCLA had a great opportunity to knock the rust off in a 44-10 thumping of Hawaii last Saturday, which gives them a leg up on a Tigers squad that will be debuting new offensive and defensive coordinators Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins return 20 starters from last year's 3-4 squad, but be advised that those four losses came by a combined 15 points. That's right, this team was better than people gave them credit for. Additionally, Chip Kelly's offense took a big step forward last year in scoring 35 points per game, which was up from just 26 points per game two seasons ago. Put the Tigers on upset alert.

Pick: UCLA +3


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New Mexico State Aggies at San Diego State Aztecs (-31, 51), 10:30 p.m. ET

Connelly: Let's just call this what it is: a "Pick against NMSU every week until Vegas has a true read on how bad the Aggies are" pick. They were lucky to go 1-1 against FCS newcomers last spring (they got stomped by Tarleton State and barely held off Dixie State), and they began their 2021 campaign by getting outgained 452-190 by UTEP. SP+ ranked them 130th, dead last in FBS this fall, and still only projected them to lose by only 9.4 points last week. They lost by 27. It has them losing by an average of 35.8 this week, so +31 seems awfully generous.

Pick: SDSU -31


 

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Sunday's game

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No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-7.5, 55.5) at Florida State Seminoles, 7:30 p.m. ET

Fortenbaugh: Notre Dame returns just 9 starters from last year's playoff squad, only three of which play on the offensive side of the football. To put that into context, the Irish lost a grand total of 140 starts along the offensive line and will transition from quarterback Ian Book-who owns the most wins at the position in Notre Dame history-to Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, a game manager who led a run-first offense in Madison. Expect more from FSU head coach Mike Norvell in Year 2 thanks to 17 returning starters and a full complement of spring practices, something he wasn't afforded as a rookie head coach during last year's pandemic. This one's for Bobby.

Pick: Florida State +7.5


Monday's game

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Louisville Cardinals vs. Ole Miss Rebels (-10, 75.5), 8 p.m. ET in Atlanta, GA

Kezirian: Based on everything we know about Lane Kiffin, do you think he will pass up this golden opportunity of a primetime, stand-alone game? Of course not. He is going to unleash the offensive fury with stud quarterback Matt Corral and use this platform and visibility for recruiting and every other benefit. Kiffin's offense went toe-to-toe last year in the 63-48 loss to national champion Alabama. Of course, the defense will have its issues and who knows if it has improved at all, but ultimately, this is about Kiffin and his explosive offense.

I love Scott Satterfield but things are a bit shaky. He flirted with leaving for the SEC last offseason in such a public way that he wrote an apology letter to the fans. As for action on the field, he will take over play-calling duties and that should bode well for QB Malik Cunningham. I expect the Cardinals to hang around for a bit but ultimately, the Rebels will just overwhelm a Louisville squad that has had a leaky defense and offense prone to turnovers.

Pick: Ole Miss -10

Hale: Here's the Ole Miss profile: Team that improved dramatically in Year 1 under a new coach, scored a bunch of points behind a hotshot QB, overshadowing a struggling defense, then entered Year 2 with massively higher expectations.


Know who that sounds an awful lot like? The 2019 Louisville team that Scott Satterfield rejuvenated... only to watch it fall off a cliff in 2020.

Luck went against Louisville last year. Turnovers killed the Cardinals. They blew a bunch of games late. The defense, which made huge strides, was continually put in bad field position situations by offensive and special teams miscues. But the heart of a good team remains.

Meanwhile, what do we really know about Ole Miss? The Rebels can score, yes. But can they stop anyone? Five teams topped 500 yards against them last season. Louisville can win a shootout, and the money line (+320) might be worth a look. For now, though, we'll take the points.

Pick: Louisville +10
 
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