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As season opens, UCLA's Kelly in spotlight

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Once described as the most innovative football coach in America, Chip Kelly is no longer being touted for his advanced methods, creative thinking and fast talking. But, to his credit, he has found new ways to be boring, lose and still bank big numbers.

In three years at UCLA, Kelly’s record is 10-21. In the fourth year, he will pull in a salary of $5.6 million.

If Kelly has something left in his think tank, it will show early in the college football season when his Bruins are featured in a pair of marquee games against Hawaii and LSU, both in the idyllic Rose Bowl setting in Pasadena, Calif.

“I’m high on UCLA this year,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “Kelly has had a checkered career, but he did really well at Oregon. These are his players now, and I think this team will be better than most people think.”

The Bruins return 20 starters, 10 on each side of the ball, and junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will trigger Kelly’s offense. UCLA finished 3-4 last year, with each loss by six points or fewer, so the Bruins have reasons to be optimistic.

Still, Kelly is not being paid like a king to be competitive and blow close games. Hailed as a wizard when he arrived in Westwood, Kelly has fizzled. Patience is wearing thin with the coach who seemed invincible to the rest of the Pac-12 while at Oregon, where he went 46-7 and posted a 33-3 conference record from 2009-12.

Kelly’s quick detour through the NFL — three years with the Eagles and one with the 49ers — was a failed venture and wrong turn that resulted in him twice being fired.

In what is known as Week 0 of the college season, Hawaii-UCLA is one of only five games on the schedule. Kelly’s best shot at a bounce-back year begins Saturday, when the Bruins are 18-point favorites against the Warriors.

Coached by the fiery Todd Graham, Hawaii returns 18 starters, including quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, from a 5-4 team that won a bowl game. The Warriors might not be pushovers.

“I would think Kelly needs to get to a bowl game in Year 4 from the standpoint of job security,” said Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone, a VSiN contributor. “The Bruins appear to have plenty of pieces on offense but must get better defensively to turn some of those close losses into victories. Hawaii should be modestly improved in Graham’s second season, plus this seems like a good spot to fade UCLA laying this kind of number with a much-anticipated game against LSU waiting in the wings.”

Stone said he took 17.5 points with Hawaii. The Bruins are 4.5-point home underdogs to LSU on Sept. 4, when the season starts full blast.

Andrews, who rates the Bruins as the sixth-best team in the Pac-12, said, “There’s always a surprise team, and I think UCLA could be that team.”

On his 100-point scale for power ratings, Andrews has Alabama on top with a 103 rating. That’s not a big surprise. Even after waving goodbye to six players who were picked in the first round of the NFL draft, the Crimson Tide open the season as 18.5-point favorites against Miami on a neutral field Sept. 4 in Atlanta.

“It’s Nick Saban, and he will plug in another super athlete to replace the players who left,” Andrews said. “Let me put it this way: Nobody is beating down the door to bet against Alabama.”

A Big Ten matchup kicks off Saturday’s action. Nebraska is a 7-point favorite at Illinois, and the dog has drawn money after the line opened 8.5. The Fighting Illini pulled the plug on the Lovie Smith era and replaced the former Chicago Bears coach with Bret Bielema, who won the Big Ten three times at Wisconsin a decade ago.

The Cornhuskers are 12-20 in coach Scott Frost’s three seasons. A negative story has surfaced with Nebraska, which is under NCAA investigation for reported violations under Frost’s watch.

“There has been some controversy with Frost, but I’m not sure how that’s going to affect this team,” Andrews said. “It’s probably one of those things — where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The investigation has the potential to turn the Cornhuskers into a dumpster fire.

For the record, my college season is kicking off with two plays (Illinois + 7 and Hawaii + 18), and a couple more are likely to be added by Saturday.

Fresno State is a 27.5-point favorite against Connecticut in the game with the least wagering appeal. Andrews put a power rating of 45 on UConn, which is not at rock bottom. The lowest teams on Andrews’ scale are Texas-El Paso (43), Akron (42), New Mexico State (40), Bowling Green (38) and Massachusetts (38).

In the Saturday night prime-time slot that typically features elite teams from the SEC, Big Ten and ACC, we will be watching and wagering on two oddball games —  UTEP-New Mexico State and Southern Utah-San Jose State. The latter opened Spartans -21 offshore, although the game is not listed on the main betting rotation because the Thunderbirds are an FCS team from the Big Sky Conference.

It’s hilarious to see the Aggies and Miners getting a national stage in Las Cruces, N.M., but it’s also a great thing for two destitute programs.

“Can you imagine UTEP being a 9-point road favorite?” Andrews asked. “That looks way too high to me. I really think that’s a ridiculous number. It takes some guts to bet on New Mexico State, and I get that.”

Stone said he bet UTEP -7 early this summer and still recommends a small play on the favorite at the current number, which has moved as high as -10 at DraftKings. The Miners are road favorites for only the fourth time in 11 seasons.

“New Mexico State didn’t play last fall and was humiliated by Tarleton State (43-17) during a two-game spring season,” Stone said. “Most of the Aggies’ top players transferred out of the program. But don’t get carried away with the Miners.”

 

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