PENN STATE at WISCONSIN
Favored to win the Big Ten West, Wisconsin will probably go as far as quarterback Graham Mertz can carry the offense. Mertz, a former five-star recruit, was hyped as the program’s next Russell Wilson after completing 20 of 21 passes with five touchdowns in his debut against Illinois. But the Badgers hit the skids and Mertz passed for only four touchdowns the rest of the season as Wisconsin finished 4-3. Mertz is one of nine returning starters on offense, and the defense brings back eight starters. The Badgers are 5.5-point favorites at Camp Randall Stadium. The teams last met in 2018, when Penn State prevailed 22-10 as an 8-point home favorite. The Lions return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Sean Clifford, and appear to have the firepower to put up big numbers. Clifford is a running threat who struggled with his passing accuracy and threw nine interceptions last season, when Penn State opened 0-5 before closing with a four-game winning streak. The pressure is cranked up on Nittany Lions coach James Franklin to produce better results, and his team is picked to finish second in the East behind Ohio State. Penn State will be favored in four consecutive home games — Ball State, Auburn, Villanova and Indiana — after this trip to Madison for a high-profile conference opener that could be a thriller at the wire.
SAN JOSE STATE at USC
The Mountain West underdog appears to be outclassed by one of the Pac-12 favorites, but erase the memories of hapless San Jose State teams of the past. In his fifth year, coach Brent Brennan has transformed the Spartans’ image. San Jose finished 7-1 last year and opened this season with a 45-14 victory over Southern Utah. Nick Starkel passed for 394 yards and four touchdowns, and Tyler Nevens rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown as the Spartans covered as 28-point favorites. San Jose posted double-digit wins over Boise State, Nevada and San Diego State last year, proof that Brennan’s team is legit. The 14-point line at USC is a sign of respect. The Trojans are again loaded with talent and led by veteran quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has totaled 47 touchdown passes in two seasons. Drake London could be the conference’s top wide receiver, and Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is primed to take over as the go-to running back. The Trojans will feature plenty of weapons in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s wide-open attack. USC was lucky to finish 5-1 last season and needed Slovis to lead improbable comebacks to beat Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA. USC’s team speed advantage might be too much for San Jose to overcome, but the Spartans have a game under their belts and the Trojans have underachieved while going 13-18 ATS the last three seasons for coach Clay Helton.
LSU at UCLA
Chip Kelly’s fourth year as UCLA coach opened with his first nonconference win, 44-10 over Hawaii on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins scored on their first five possessions and led 31-3 at halftime against an error-prone underdog with a weak defense. It’s a big step up in competition against LSU, even if the Tigers are a middle-of-the-pack SEC team. LSU will start Max Johnson at quarterback after Myles Brennan injured his arm in early August, but Johnson played well in two starts last season and is capable of handling the job. The Tigers are stronger than the Bruins on the offensive and defensive lines, but this is Kelly’s best UCLA team, and the advantage of already playing a game could be significant. South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews opened LSU as a slim 2-point favorite, and the line has moved only a little to 3.5 and 4. Kelly brought back 20 starters this season, including the most experienced quarterback in the Pac-12 in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In the blowout of Hawaii, Thompson-Robinson did not need to air it out and passed for 130 yards with a touchdown. The Bruins dominated on the ground, with Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet carrying six times for 106 yards and three touchdowns as UCLA rolled up 244 rushing yards. It will be much tougher to run on the LSU defense. Still in search of a signature win, Kelly gets the coaching edge over the Tigers’ Ed Orgeron. A lot of sharp handicappers believe UCLA is ready for a breakthrough. But it’s also possible the Bruins are not as good as they appeared last week when Hawaii played so poorly. This is an intriguing matchup that will attract two-way action.
BYU at ARIZONA
After a close competition in camp, redshirt sophomore Jaren Hall was named Brigham Young’s starting quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hall beat out Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover and will attempt to replace Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft by the Jets. Hall is a dual-threat quarterback who started twice during the 2019 season against South Florida and Utah State. The Cougars, who followed Wilson’s lead to an 11-1 record last season, should have plenty of offensive firepower. Expect the betting public to side with BYU as an 11-point favorite at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. It takes courage to back the Wildcats, who enter the season on a 12-game losing streak. New coach Jedd Fisch, formerly the quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots, replaces Kevin Sumlin and has a lot of rebuilding to do. Fisch did not pick a quarterback in camp and said Gunner Cruz, a Washington State transfer, and Will Plummer will both take snaps. The team quit on Sumlin last season, which ended with an embarrassing 70-7 loss to Arizona State. Fisch will motivate his players and his team will show a lot of fight, but is there enough talent in Tucson? Maybe so. It’s easy to forget that Arizona was a 14-point underdog in a 34-30 loss to USC to open the 2020 season. The Wildcats return nine starters on defense, and reports from camp have been positive about the front seven. It won’t be surprising if Arizona hangs around, but BYU has an obvious talent edge and appears to be the safe side in this guessing game.
NEVADA at CALIFORNIA
Poor air quality in Reno as a result of wildfires forced Nevada coach Jay Norvell to take the show on the road. The team traveled by bus to Palo Alto, Calif., for two weeks of practice at Stanford. “Sometimes when adversity hits you, there’s some real positive things to come out of it,” said Norvell, who called it a great bonding experience for the team. Ironically, the Wolf Pack open the season against Stanford’s rival in the Bay Area, and the matchup is a clash of styles. California coach Justin Wilcox is a defensive wizard, but the Golden Bears tend to hibernate on offense. However, quarterback Chase Garbers is a four-year starter who plans to trigger a higher-scoring attack this season. The Bears are 8-3 in Garbers’ last 11 starts. Wilcox has designed schemes to shut down the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and Nevada’s Carson Strong is the top passer in the Mountain West and a rising NFL prospect. Strong completed 70% of his passes with 27 touchdowns and four interceptions last season, when the Wolf Pack finished 7-2. Strong can go to three playmakers — running back Toa Taua and wide receivers Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks — to test Cal’s defense on the ground and through the air. The chess match between Wilcox and Strong could be fascinating to watch. Nevada is probably strong enough, especially offensively, to beat several Pac-12 teams. The trips to Stanford should help the Wolf Pack adapt to playing in Berkeley. Cal is favored by 3 to 3.5 points, so oddsmakers are indicating this basically would be a pick-’em game on a neutral field. Nevada should be up for the challenge.
NOTRE DAME at FLORIDA STATE
How quickly can Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reload? The Fighting Irish lost nine players to the NFL draft and must replace quarterback Ian Book, who won 30 games as a starter. This looks to be a much weaker team than the one that finished 10-2 last season with losses to Alabama and Clemson. Kelly has recruited exceptionally well, however, so the talent he has to work with is not in question. Quarterback is a concern. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan possesses neither Book’s passing accuracy nor running ability. The Irish can rely on stud running back Kyren Williams, who totaled 1,125 yards on the ground last year. Williams went for 185 yards in a 42-26 victory over Florida State. In coach Mike Norvell’s first year, the Seminoles struggled with weak quarterback play and finished 3-6. Expect to see major improvement in Norvell’s second team in Tallahassee. He has 17 starters returning and will go with UCF transfer McKenzie Milton or sophomore Jordan Travis at quarterback. The point spread peaked at Notre Dame -9.5 before sharp money showed on the underdog and moved the line to 7.5. The Seminoles should be live home dogs Sunday night, especially if Milton flashes the playmaking ability he showed before a serious knee injury interrupted his promising career.
OHIO STATE at MINNESOTA
Ryan Day has yet to lose in the regular season, going 20-0, and has led Ohio State to consecutive Big Ten championships in his first two seasons as coach. The Buckeyes rank 126th of 130 FBS programs in terms of returning production, but, as the cliche goes, they don’t rebuild, they reload. For the first time since 2015, the Buckeyes open on the road, and they begin with a conference road game for only the second time since 1975. Redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud will make his first start at quarterback for an offense that returns six starters, including top receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. On the other hand, the Buckeyes will likely want to test Minnesota’s rushing defense early and often, considering the Gophers gave up 256 and 281 yards on the ground in their first two games last year against Michigan and Maryland, respectively. Minnesota ranks sixth in returning production with 10 starters back on each side of the ball. Expectations were high last year after the Gophers went 11-2 in 2019 and posted only the second double-digit-win season in school history. But Minnesota was blown out at home by Michigan in last year’s opener and never recovered. Expectations have been lowered this year, which could give the Gophers value as a dark horse in the Big Ten West. Tanner Morgan will start at quarterback for the third year, and first-team all-conference running back Mo Ibrahim and the entire offensive line return. Nevertheless, Ohio State was one of seven teams to allow fewer than 100 ypg on the ground last year, so Morgan will have to make plays in the air against a Buckeyes back seven that ranked dead last in the conference in passing defense. Ohio State should be a College Football Playoff contender again, but this is a tricky game with a new starting quarterback in his first road start against a team motivated to make a good first impression after last year’s flop. Despite Day’s 6-1 ATS mark as a road favorite, two touchdowns or more looks like a fair number to take the home underdog.
INDIANA at IOWA
Indiana has clear momentum, and Tom Allen is building a culture. The Hoosiers have put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1994, and their AP preseason ranking of 17 is their highest since 1969. The question is how Indiana will handle expectations. All three of quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s seasons have been cut short due to two torn ACLs and a broken clavicle. His health is an obvious key. Leading rusher Stevie Scott left for the NFL, but USC graduate transfer Stephen Carr came in to reunite with running backs coach Deland McCullough, who recruited him to the Trojans. Ty Fryfogle became the top receiver last season and is back. Defense was the Hoosiers’ strength last year and should be again with nine starters returning. The Hawkeyes started 2020 at 0-2 but closed with six straight wins. Like Indiana, Iowa’s strength is its defense, which is why this game’s total of 45 is the lowest on the Week 1 board. While Indiana forced 20 turnovers in eight games — ranking No. 2 in FBS with 17 interceptions — Iowa ranked top 10 nationally in total yards, rushing yards, passing efficiency, scoring and turnover margin. The Hawkeyes are always good in the trenches but must replace three starters on each line. Spencer Petras was solid but not spectacular in his first season as Iowa’s QB. Even with the inexperience on the offensive line, Iowa can always seem to run the ball, but Petras will need a receiver or two to emerge for this club to get to the conference title game. This is a massive game for both programs, especially Indiana. Iowa has the Cy-Hawk game at rival Iowa State on deck but will not look ahead from the conference opener. Allen is 7-3 ATS as a road underdog, including 7-0 in his last seven games in the spot.
BOISE STATE at UCF
New coaches, Andy Avalos at Boise State and Gus Malzahn at UCF, will guide these Group of 5 contenders. The question being asked around Orlando is whether Malzahn will retain the fast-paced offense used by predecessors Josh Heupel and Scott Frost, but the downside was the defense was often back on the field too quickly and never able to get a needed breather. No matter, Malzahn might be tempted to retain the go-go pace that features the quick release of prolific southpaw QB Dillon Gabriel, who had 32 TD passes in 2020. That’s especially true since the Knights have been fortified by transfers, including DE Big Kat Bryant, who followed Malzahn from Auburn, and the return of key DT Kalia Davis, who opted out last season. Meanwhile, Avalos knows all about the Boise culture, having worked on the staffs of Chris Petersen and Bryan Harsin, and QB Hank Bachmeier enters his third year as the starter. But this might be a tougher test than their last opening day in the Sunshine State, when the Broncos dumped a downgraded Florida State two years ago. Both offenses are accomplished, but as both are putting more emphasis on their defenses, might the total be a tad high?
OKLAHOMA at TULANE
After New Orleans got battered by Hurricane Ida, the game will be moved to Oklahoma, which by the end of last season was playing like a CFP team as QB Spencer Rattler laid the groundwork for a Heisman Trophy push this autumn. But Big 12 sources insist the real difference between this Lincoln Riley edition and previous contenders is on defense. Alex Grinch’s platoon displayed some long-absent bite last season, and his 4-2-5 looks now show plenty of experience in the front six and established playmakers in the back end. Tulane, however, might not be ready to get boat-raced and thinks it can keep pace, at least for a while, after QB Michael Pratt accounted for more TDs — 20 passing and eight rushing — than any first-year player in the nation last year. The Green Wave likely don’t have enough defense to maintain contact but might be worth a look at this big price. Lots of offense, however, could make the Over intriguing.
FRESNO STATE at OREGON
Fresno State got a test drive in Week 0, though it could have scheduled in-town San Joaquin Memorial High School and likely received as much of a workout as woeful UConn provided. The Bulldogs could have won 70-0 if they’d wished but called off the dogs when the score reached 45-0. Former Washington transfer QB Jake Haener took a seat with heat cramps in the second half after passing for three TDs and 331 yards. Obviously, Oregon provides a greater challenge, and the Ducks are thinking big again after their surprise Fiesta Bowl visit. Unlike last year, they’ve had a full offseason to absorb offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s run-pass option concepts, which look like a good fit for former BC transfer QB Anthony Brown. But coach Mario Cristobal might have a hard time keeping his troops from peeking ahead at the trip to Ohio State on deck, and Oregon hasn’t been overwhelming lately against the number in Eugene, covering just six of its last 14 and often laying similar heavy lumber. These are the sorts of high-profile challenges the Bulldogs have often relished, and that is reflected in a 6-1 spread mark in their last seven against Power 5 foes.
MIAMI (FLA.) vs. ALABAMA
Whatever puncher’s chance Miami might have in this opener was confirmed at ACC media days in Charlotte when QB D’Eriq King, coming off knee surgery, looked spry enough to sprint down the street to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. King’s availability will be crucial for Manny Diaz to advance the Hurricanes back into the national conversation, but Miami didn’t exactly step to the plate against the big boys a year ago. The Canes were eviscerated by Clemson and then humiliated by North Carolina, which piled up nearly 800 yards of offense. Alabama’s offense will be different from last year’s national title team, with new faces and a new coordinator in Bill O’Brien, a Bill Belichick disciple like Nick Saban who replaces new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. But don’t assume too much of a drop, as new QB Bryce Young might be even more ballyhooed than immediate predecessors Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. And Saban’s pipeline as usual is loaded with blue-chippers, including several backs ready to pick up where Najee Harris left off before moving to the Steelers. Alabama has won 13 straight games in Atlanta and has won all nine of these neutral-field openers, covering eight, for Saban.
GEORGIA vs. CLEMSON
It’s nice to see the renewal of what was once a very spirited border rivalry, often with national implications, though this will be only the fifth meeting since 1995 after nearly annual games the preceding 33 years. The post-Trevor Lawrence era begins at Clemson, but Dabo Swinney is not exactly breaking in a greenhorn at QB with D.J. Uiagalelei. He got a test run last autumn when Lawrence was out with COVID-19 and set a Notre Dame opponent passing record with 439 yards. Getting big-play WR Justyn Ross (112 career catches) back in the fold after missing 2020 should be another plus, and Brent Venables is expected to work more of his schematic magic on the defensive side with 10 returning starters. Meanwhile, this is Kirby Smart’s latest chance for the statement win that has eluded him. We’ll also find out if former USC transfer QB JT Daniels is really the prime-time performer he was hyped to be coming out of high school, when he was rated ahead of Lawrence. Can Smart’s defense step up like it didn’t against Alabama and Florida a season ago? It’s also a crucial result for those with season-win Over tickets on either side, as the loser will have no more room for error for those tickets to cash. Clemson has won the last six years in ACC title games on this field in Charlotte.
OLE MISS vs. LOUISVILLE
Louisville fans were ready to throw their hot brown sandwiches at coach Scott Satterfield when the Cardinals slumped to 4-7 last season after an encouraging bowl win in Satterfield’s debut. Now he has had to deal with defections from his coaching staff and roster and has decided to take over the offense himself, trying to smooth the rough edges on junior QB Malik Cunningham, guilty of 15 giveaways in 2020. No one is hyping Cunningham for the Heisman Trophy like they are Ole Miss counterpart Matt Corral, who tossed 29 TD passes a year ago. True, Lane Kiffin couldn’t do better than .500 in his Rebels debut campaign because his turbocharged offense rarely gave the defense time to rest, a main reason Ole Miss allowed an average of almost as many points (38) as it scored (39). Also don’t forget that the Rebels played an all-SEC regular-season slate a year ago before knocking off favored Big Ten darling Indiana in the Outback Bowl. If Kiffin is serious about Corral getting Heisman visibility, we doubt he will ease up on the throttle with a chance to further impress a national TV audience.