For just about everyone, Week 0 of the college football season represents joy. It’s the start of a prolonged, magical stretch of a seemingly endless amount of betting possibilities. It’s a time of hope, excitement, double IPAs and late-night chases. It’s a time for betting Overs, contrarian angles and, for some of us, more double IPAs.
The joy that you’re feeling this week? Scott Frost is not currently sharing any of those same emotions.
No, the Nebraska coach has one of the most important games of his coaching life directly in front of him. The Cornhuskers are now just 7-point favorites against Illinois -- a team that has endured its own struggles and will be breaking in a new coach.
To understand the importance of these 60 minutes for Frost, one must first understand just how disappointing the last three years have been. Since arriving from Central Florida, Frost is 12-20 at Nebraska. To put that in further perspective, he won more games in his final season with the Knights than he has thus far in Lincoln.
The marriage between coach and program seemed, frankly, perfect at the outset. Frost, a legendary player for the program and state, felt like the appropriate savior arriving at the perfect time.
The results have been wildly disappointing. Inconsistent quarterback play, subpar defense and the inability to recruit and develop are the catalysts of these struggles, although it’s difficult to pinpoint a single source of failure. It simply has not worked.
The good news? After Illinois, Nebraska plays Fordham and Buffalo.
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The bad news? The Cornhuskers then play Oklahoma in Norman, and the line on the game is currently 19.5. The last three games are also suboptimal: vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa.
Still, Nebraska has been bestowed a reasonable win total of 6.5 (Over -130, Under + 110). Given the start of the schedule, that seems doable. Where the state of this program comes into focus, however, is in other places.
The Cornhuskers are 10-1 to win the Big Ten West, positioned behind Wisconsin, Iowa and even Minnesota. They are also 25-1 to win the Big Ten, in front of only Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers.
I hate to overstate the importance of one game, but this feels like a program on the brink. And with the NCAA investigating Nebraska and Frost for alleged improper use of analysts and workouts that shouldn’t have taken place, the stakes are even greater.
One doesn’t have to think long and hard to connect the dots. The NCAA’s involvement could help Nebraska recoup some of the buyout money owed to Frost — a reported $20 million — if they were to separate after this year. (See Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee.)
That is not to say the exact same blueprint is in place, although things are happening.
Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, however, Frost has a game to coach. A very big game. A win, and the program is likely looking at a 3-0 start. A loss, of course, means something far different.
Keep those double IPAs cooled for him just in case.
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. Although I have touted Georgia all offseason, the potential absences the Bulldogs could have against Clemson are plenty concerning. “Potential” is the key word, because we don’t know much else. What we do know is that tight end-turned-wideout Arik Gilbert, the team’s massive offseason acquisition, is away from the program for personal reasons. We also know tight end Darnell Washington, a massive piece of the offense, is dealing with a foot injury that makes his availability hazy. Tykee Smith, a promising defensive back who came over from West Virginia, is also dealing with a foot injury as well. While not necessarily back-breaking losses if they are out Week 1, anything less than full strength is less than ideal. Clemson is still -3.5. Much more on this game next week.
2. I am curious to see what a reported alliance among the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 looks like. This, of course, is a direct counter to the SEC’s move of adding Texas and Oklahoma. And while I love the idea of more regulated out-of-conference scheduling, this feels more like posturing than anything else. Still, details are coming soon.
3. C.J. Stroud will indeed be the starting QB at Ohio State, as many expected. Since the decision was announced, Stroud’s Heisman odds went from 14-1 to 12-1. Despite playing in only limited instances last year while backing up Justin Fields, Stroud is tied for fourth in Heisman odds. Ryan Day really is a quarterback whisperer, and I don’t expect a massive drop at the position despite how gifted Fields was. As I wrote last week, Ohio State is in business at QB for the foreseeable future.
4. A point spread I find fascinating in Week 1? BYU -11 at Arizona. I know BYU was excellent last season, but to be laying that many points on the road to a Pac-12 team — particularly after losing Zach Wilson to the NFL — is intriguing. The offensive line was also gutted, which could make for an interesting debut. Arizona is in shambles, looking for a fresh start with new coach Jedd Ari Fisch, but this might be too many points.
5. Ah, time for a quick mini-rant: I absolutely despise preseason polls. In fact, I will flat-out ignore what they say. They inject bias into a sport that decides its playoff with a group of people. We should not be doing any meaningful polls until the middle of October. Rant over. Enough with preseason polls.
The Buffet: The Four Best Games of the Weekend
With only four games on the docket, we had to shorten what is normally a more robust slate. Not to worry. Next week we will have the entire buffet functional. We’re just happy to have one to write about this week.
1. Nebraska (-7, 55) at Illinois
The stakes for Frost have been outlined, but the game itself is actually interesting. Brett Bielema returns to the Big Ten in Champaign. Bielema, of course, used a run-heavy style to win three Big Ten titles at Wisconsin, and you can expect that theme to carry over. The running game will be the strength of Illinois, and Nebraska will have to slow down a solid 1-2 attack of Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. The Cornhuskers will counter with an offense led by junior QB Adrian Martinez, who is plenty capable but has also been inconsistent. To me, Martinez is the difference in this game (for better or worse). If he’s his normal self and protects the ball, Nebraska could roll. If he throws picks, the outcome could be all too familiar.
2. UCLA (-17, 79.5) vs. Hawaii
The Bruins are an interesting team, and this represents a fascinating first test before Chip Kelly’s group plays LSU the following week. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has fascinating potential at QB — a true dual threat who has developed nicely and still not quite reached his ceiling. The defense was also better than expected and should be again, which is not something we’re accustomed to saying about Kelly’s team. Hawaii, meanwhile, is not the Hawaii of old. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, Todd Graham could make it a good thing. The early returns on the defensive side of the ball last season were promising, and the offense still has some juice. I’m back and forth on the pick, but I do think the Under is viable.
3. UTEP (-9, 54) vs. New Mexico State
For the casual fan, this is where the drop-off happens. Week 0 can do that. But before you push this aside for Week 1, consider the possibilities. In a year that was largely impacted by COVID-19, UTEP finished 3-5. One of the five losses was a 59-3 defeat to Texas, although the team was competitive in pretty much every other game. This program has been bad — an understatement, I suppose — although there is enough coming back for some optimism. New Mexico State comes into this having played two games last season, although those games took place this year. Those two games? A loss to Tarleton State and a close win against Dixie State. These are real schools and real results. Also, for those curious, Tarleton State is in Texas. If you love football — and I mean truly love football — you will watch this game.
4. Fresno State (-27.5, 62.5) vs. UConn
And finally, a little four-touchdown spread to tie the weekend together. Let’s begin with UConn, which didn’t play football in 2020 and lost 10 games in 2019. One of the Huskies’ two victories that year was a three-point win over Wagner. COVID-19 wiped out fall and spring plans, and so things start with a tricky road game. (As an aside, UConn also plays at Clemson later in the year. That won’t go well.) Fresno State, however, was unable to duplicate the success of 2018 in '19 or 2020. The offense under new coach Kalen DeBoer last year was tops in the Mountain West, although results varied. The key cogs of the offense return, which is good news for a team that moved the ball. As for the spread, well, that part is a bit trickier. It feels like a number that the Bulldogs should cover, although with Oregon looming the next week, does Fresno hold back or simply charge ahead?