When the NFL Draft stage is set next spring in Las Vegas, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert could be the first player to walk across it. The 6-foot-6 senior will likely see his draft stock rise or fall Saturday night.
The quarterback in Auburn’s huddle will be taking his first career snaps.
If there is a time for a top team from the Pac-12 to step up in class and make a statement, this is it. It’s do-or-die time for the Ducks’ playoff hopes and their conference’s sagging reputation, and that’s not an overstatement.
Herbert passed for 44 touchdowns with 13 interceptions the past two seasons as Oregon’s offense scored 39.4 points per game in his 27 starts. Herbert is surrounded by skilled running backs and receivers, and the Ducks’ offensive line is the most experienced in the nation with a combined 153 career starts. The strength of that line will be essential against 6-5, 325-pound Derrick Brown and the Tigers’ defensive front.
Auburn knows all about stars named Bo, and Bo Nix is extremely talented, yet he’s also the first freshman QB to start a season opener for a Southeastern Conference team in 15 years. (Prediction: Nix will be a Heisman Trophy candidate next year.)
It’s no mystery why bettors perceive the Pac-12 as inferior to the SEC — and Mario Cristobal is also inferior to Gus Malzahn in the coaching matchup — but conference pedigree is creating line value in this matchup in Arlington, Texas. Las Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White rates Oregon as a half-point better.
The Ducks, who return 17 starters and reeled in an elite recruiting class, should be live ‘dogs so the play is Oregon plus-4.
Seven more best bets for Saturday and one for Monday (home team in CAPS):
165-East Carolina (plus-17) over NC STATE:
The Wolfpack pillaged the Pirates 58-3 near the end of last season, but that was with Ryan Finley at quarterback. Only 11 starters return from that North Carolina State team. Mike Houston, East Carolina’s new coach, brings a new attitude after a highly successful run at James Madison.
171-Toledo (plus-11) over KENTUCKY:
Mark Stoops is off a 10-win season, but he has failed to cover 10 straight times as a favorite in Lexington. He also lost stud running back Benny Snell to the NFL and must replace seven defensive starters. Toledo quarterback Mitchell Guadagni led the Mid-American Conference in passing efficiency last season, and he’ll get help from star running back Bryant Koback.
185-Northwestern (plus-6) over STANFORD:
A definitive betting pattern has developed with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. Last season, the Wildcats went 7-1-1 against the spread as underdogs and 0-4-1 ATS as favorites. In fact, Northwestern has covered 10 in a row as a road ‘dog with eight outright wins. Hunter Johnson, a Clemson transfer, is probably the most talented quarterback in program history. The Cardinal return only nine starters and K.J. Costello, who led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last year, lost his top two targets to the NFL. Some concerns shadow Stanford’s offensive line and defense.
190-LIBERTY (plus-18½) over Syracuse:
This is a tricky opener for the Orange. Hugh Freeze, the disgraced former Mississippi coach, gets his second chance and he’s taking over a program that’s not in a deep freeze. The Flames, 12-11 the past two years, return 16 starters. Liberty upset Baylor as a 30-point ‘dog in 2017.
199-Georgia Southern (plus-27½) over LSU:
No team overlooks the season opener, but the Tigers might have an eye on Texas. LSU’s game at Austin on Sept. 7 is among the season’s most hyped nonconference matchups. With a lead in the second half, LSU coach Ed Orgeron could let off the gas and keep key players healthy in preparation for the Longhorns. That’s an angle to consider when handicapping a four-touchdown favorite with a huge game on deck. The Tigers plan to unveil a wide-open passing offense — we will believe it when we see it — with senior Joe Burrow pulling the trigger. How much of their new offensive playbook will the Tigers want to show? Georgia Southern returns 14 starters from a 10-3 team. Eagles quarterback Shai Werts is off a strong season in which he ran for 908 yards and 15 touchdowns while passing for 10 touchdowns without an interception.
209-Louisiana Tech (plus-20½) over TEXAS:
A Longhorns team that returns only eight starters might be a slow starter. The lookahead factor for Texas, which has a huge game against LSU on deck, should be a situational edge for the road underdog. There is a lot to like about Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray twice last year before upsetting Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. There’s also something to admire in Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz, who’s 14-4 ATS as a road ‘dog since 2014, and Holtz has a dangerous QB in senior J’Mar Smith. Monitor this line to see if it rises to 21, as expected.
298-UNLV (-24) over Southern Utah:
Rebels coach Tony Sanchez desperately needs to impress this season or it could be his last. He loves the bully role, in recent years running up scores against Idaho State (80-8), Jackson State (63-13) and Prairie View (46-17). UNLV QB Armani Rogers is finally healthy. The Thunderbirds from the Big Sky finished 1-10 last year and leading rusher Jay Green is suspended. How is this not a blowout?
218-LOUISVILLE (plus-19) over Notre Dame:
The Cardinals were a complete mess last year, going 2-10 straight up and 1-10 ATS, as Bobby Petrino met his demise. Things will change quickly with new coach Scott Satterfield, who had an impressive run at Appalachian State. Satterfield inherits a team with 17 returning starters, and Jawon “Puma” Pass is a raw quarterback with potential. Expect a slight decline in the Irish, who must cover a big number in a road opener. Play the home ‘dog on Monday night.