Five bet-on, five bet-against CFB teams in 2021

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Gus Malzahn’s eight-year tenure at Auburn played out much like a rocky romance.

Some days were better than others, but, in the end, the bad ones outnumbered the good.

At least according to the powers that be on the Plains.

After last season’s middle-feeding 6-5 showing, Auburn decided to part ways with Malzahn and ultimately selected Boise State coach Bryan Harsin as his successor.

The hiring of the 44-year-old Harsin, who has spent most of his playing and coaching career west of the Rockies, was curious in some corners.

After all, Auburn resides in the SEC West -- inarguably college football’s toughest neighborhood. Nick Saban still rules the roost in Tuscaloosa, and the Tigers’ new man in charge will have to win at least a few recruiting battles against St. Nick and the almighty Crimson Tide.

And Harsin is not exactly a familiar face in living rooms across the Deep South. His experience east of the Rockies includes exactly two seasons as Texas’ offensive coordinator under Mack Brown in 2011-12 and one more as head coach of Sun Belt Conference entry Arkansas State in 2013.

Time will tell whether Harsin’s hiring turns out to be a stroke of genius, an exercise in poor judgment or somewhere in between. But in Year 1, the deck looks at least somewhat stacked against Auburn.

Besides having a new coaching staff, the Tigers face the nation’s second-hardest schedule, according to Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview. They are just 9-9 in their last 18 games against FBS opponents, and all but one victory came against teams that finished with non-winning records.

And former five-star quarterback recruit Bo Nix has been good but not great in his first two seasons piloting the Tigers’ offense.

For these reasons, Auburn makes my list of bet-against teams for the 2021 season.

Other Bet-Against Teams

Arkansas: The Hogs have a lot of folks back from last year’s 3-7 team, but they must replace quarterback Feleipe Franks, who was an upgrade over his recent predecessors. Arkansas’ defense returns 10 starters but was far from stellar in 2020, giving up 35 points per game and allowing three of its final four opponents to score 50 or more. It might be wise to pump the brakes a little as coach Sam Pittman attempts to take the next step in his second season in Fayetteville. Three wins is one thing, playing .500 football in this league quite another.

Tennessee: The Volunteers have lost 25 players to the transfer portal, the most in college football. And not just any players. The defections included talented linebacker Henry To’oTo’o to Alabama and their top two backs from last season, Eric Gray to Oklahoma and Ty Chandler to North Carolina. The specter of an NCAA investigation also hangs over the program, so first-year coach Josh Heupel and his staff have their work cut out for them.

Colorado: In the COVID-delayed 2020 season, Colorado opened with four straight victories before being brought back to earth in back-to-back losses to Utah and Texas by a combined 49 points. The final 4-2 record looks good on paper, but looks can be deceiving, and I believe the Buffaloes are slightly overvalued entering this season. Sam Noyer, last season’s starting quarterback and a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has transferred to Oregon State, leaving Colorado with no clear answer under center.

Indiana: Many pundits will be touting Indiana as a team to watch in 2021. And why not? After all, the Hoosiers are 14-7 straight up across the last two seasons and boast one of the nation’s most energetic and uplifting coaches, Tom Allen. But to quote William Shakespeare, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Not that the Hoosiers have won the Big Ten or anything of that magnitude, but they will almost certainly be included in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll for the first time since 1969. Plus Indiana won three games outright last season as the betting underdog and was plus-8 in the turnover category over just eight games. Those things tend to ultimately even out in the wash, as they say.

Bet-On Teams

Utah: Wagering your hard-earned, pretax dollars on Kyle Whittingham’s Utah Utes has proven a wise investment in recent years. In fact, over the last seven seasons, the Utes are 51-33-1 ATS for a winning mark of 61%, a return on investment of more than 15%. Some are reporting an August quarterback competition in Salt Lake City, but I would be shocked if Baylor grad transfer Charlie Brewer is not under center when the curtain opens in September. Brewer was hindered by a shaky Baylor offensive line that allowed 146 sacks in his four seasons in Waco, but he still threw for more than 9,500 yards during his Big 12 career.

Nevada: The Wolf Pack can make a little noise on the national scene out of the gate with September road games against Power 5 schools Cal and Kansas State. The Wolf Pack arguably have the Mountain West’s top offense engineered by the conference’s returning offensive player of the year, Carson Strong, who has thrown for almost 5,200 yards in two seasons in Reno. Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks are terrific receivers in any league. Nevada is my dark-horse candidate to win the MWC title.

Boston College: The Eagles should make significant strides in Year 2 of their makeover to a pass-oriented offense under former Ohio State assistant Jeff Hafley. Before he arrived, 59% of BC’s total yards came on the ground in 2019, compared with just 26% last year. Former Notre Dame signee Phil Jurkovec had a solid first season as the starting quarterback and throws to a talented corps of pass catchers led by first-team All-ACC selection Zay Flowers, who totaled 56 receptions for 892 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020.

UTSA: The Roadrunners of Conference USA might return the most experience of any FBS team. Texas-San Antonio welcomes back its top 14 tacklers, top four quarterbacks, top six running backs and six of its top seven pass-catchers from 2020. In fact, the Roadrunners claim 71 returning lettermen and 21 of a possible 22 returning starters. September trips to Illinois and Memphis provide UTSA with a pair of prime opportunities to enhance its national reputation.

Liberty: In just its fourth FBS season, Liberty is playing an exciting and winning brand of football under former Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze. The Flames averaged 38.2 points per game last year and feature a potential NFL first-rounder at quarterback in dual-threat Malik Willis, who threw for 2,260 yards and ran for 944 in 2020. Liberty plays one of the nation’s easiest schedules and has covered 13 of its last 16 games. The Flames’ most challenging games do not come until November when they travel to Mississippi and host Louisiana and Army.

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