Week 1 college football best bets

By VSiN Staff  (VSiN.com) 

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Week 1 of the college football season is here, with a week of terrific matchups.

Our handicappers Adam Burke, Tim Murray, Wes Reynolds and Scott Seidenberg are here to give you their best bets for nine games on the weekend's card.

Lines are consensus odds from VSiN's college football lines page, as of Wednesday night.

Saturday

Fresno State Bulldogs at No. 11 Oregon Ducks (-20.5, 63.5)

Murray: Autzen Stadium in Eugene is one of the toughest environments in college football. But this Saturday, don’t expect a vintage crowd. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. PT and the fall semester does not start at Oregon until Sept. 20. As for the Ducks’ opponent, Fresno State got a tune-up game last weekend against UConn. Granted, the Huskies could be the worst football team in the FBS, but QB Jake Haener looked sharp in a 45-0 victory. The former Washington QB was 20-of-26 for 331 yards and 3 TDs. With Haener’s experience in the Pac-12, Autzen Stadium won’t intimidate him. Additionally, the Ducks will be without a pair of starters in its secondary. Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal announced that projected starters Jamal Hill and DJ James will not be available due to an off the field incident.

Cristobal has been recruiting at a high level, but the inexperience in the secondary could lead to some issues for the Ducks on Saturday. Phil Steele rated Fresno State’s wide receivers as the 11th best in the country in his preseason magazine. Oregon does have arguably the most talented defensive player in the country in DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, who could make Haener’s afternoon a nightmare. 

Defensively, Fresno State shut out UConn last weekend and held the Huskies to 107 total yards, but Oregon is clearly on another level. The Ducks have big-time playmakers at wide receiver (including Mycah Pittman and Devon Williams) and Oregon’s top two running backs (CJ Verdell and Travis Dye) are back. The big question is QB Anthony Brown. Brown started at Boston College for three seasons before transferring to Oregon in 2020. He did not see much action last year. Highly touted freshman QB Ty Thompson could ultimately take Brown’s job during the season but for now it is the senior’s job. 

The big question is how motivated will Oregon be on Saturday? Besides the early kickoff and potentially small crowd, it’s a classic lookahead spot. Oregon visits No. 4 Ohio State next Saturday in arguably the most important game of the season for the Pac-12. Fresno State will be fired up while the Ducks will be looking to just win and move on to Columbus.

Pick: Fresno State + 20.5

Penn State Nittany Lions at Wisconsin Badgers (-6, 50)

Reynolds: The Big Ten provides two matchups between top 20 teams in Week 1 -- one in Iowa City (Indiana at Iowa) and this one in Madison. Both clubs had disappointing 2020 seasons, as Penn State had its first losing season in 16 years after starting 0-5. Wisconsin also lost three straight conference games and ended up settling for a spot in the Duke's Mayo Bowl. 

After a controversial overtime loss at Indiana, Penn State started 0-5 before winning its last four games. Injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 took their respective tolls on the Nittany Lions. Penn State head coach James Franklin was forced to spend the entire season away from his family due to his 12-year-old daughter suffering from sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that puts her at risk for complications from COVID-19. Starting running back Journey Brown was also forced to retire from football after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Then, Noah Cain was injured for the season on the first drive at Indiana. Penn State's offense never seemed to click. Quarterback Sean Clifford temporarily lost his starting job and the offense averaged 6 PPG less than in 2019. 

Kirk Ciarrocca went one-and-done as offensive coordinator and Franklin hired Mike Yurcich from the Texas staff. Clifford is sounding like he is a more confident quarterback and certainly is a candidate for a bounce-back season in his fifth year. The defense also returns six of its top eight tacklers from a unit that allowed 27.7 PPG, the worst mark in Franklin's tenure in State College.

Last year, Wisconsin started its first freshman quarterback since 1978 and Graham Mertz, the highest-rated QB recruit in program history, went 20-for-21 and threw for five touchdowns in his first start. Then, Mertz contracted COVID-19, had a shoulder injury during the season and was never the same. Mertz mustered just 57% completions, 5.6 yards per pass, four TDs and five picks the rest of the way. While Wisconsin's defense was still one of the nation's best and returns seven of its top eight tacklers, the vintage Badgers running game was anything but as they only averaged 165 YPG on the ground, the first time since 2015 that they did not average 200 YPG or more. The attack should be improved via a 1-2 punch of Jalen Berger and Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi. 

Penn State has owned the series winning and covering six of the last seven, and Franklin is 8-3 ATS in his last 11 as an underdog. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has the reputation for having one of the tougher home fields in college football, but Paul Chryst is just 5-11 ATS as chalk in Camp Randall Stadium. 

Even though this is his fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons, Clifford should post the best numbers of his career under Yurcich, who is one of the game's best offensive coordinators. Penn State plans to run more tempo this season and should be able to move the ball through the air against a Badgers pass rush that only mustered 11 sacks in seven games last season and lost both starting defensive ends to the NFL. Yurcich will use substantially less zone-read for Clifford than what was run under Ciarrocca, which will play more to Clifford's strengths.

The Nittany Lions were clearly down last season, but they did take two losses (at Indiana, at Nebraska) where they outgained their opponents by over 200 yards. Penn State had some rotten luck last season, and this should be a turnaround year. After this opener, the next four games are at home in State College, so this is the spot for a big effort.

Pick: Penn State + 6

UL Monroe Warhawks at Kentucky Wildcats (-31, 54.5)

Burke: Kentucky is going to be a very interesting team to follow early in the season. The Wildcats hired Liam Coen, who was an offensive assistant with the wide receivers and the quarterbacks over a three-year stint with the Los Angeles Rams. He should provide a spark for what has been a pretty dormant Kentucky passing offense since 2014. We know that the ‘Cats can run the rock and that shouldn’t change. The improvements in the passing game should be noticeable with Penn State transfer Will Levis at the helm.

This should be a really good opening game for Coen as offensive coordinator, facing a UL Monroe team that has not held the opposition below 36 PPG in five of the last six seasons. The Warhawks played 10 games last season, allowed 42 PPG and now have a first-year DC in  27-year-old Zac Alley. To add insult to injury in a game like this, ULM has allowed at least 5.4 yards per carry in four of the last five seasons.

New ULM offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez is a familiar name and he’s plenty familiar with his quarterback, as his son Rhett transferred in from Arizona. The Warhawks offense bottomed out last season with just 16.3 PPG, but had been respectable prior to that. We shouldn’t need miracles from the ULM offense here, as Kentucky should march up and down the field, but the Warhawks offense has more hope with Rich Rod.

ULM’s defense should be awful again and both of these offenses should be better. We know Kentucky has a good defense, but this is the kind of game where Mark Stoops can -- and should -- play a lot of different guys, which could lead to some garbage-time offense for the Warhawks.

Pick: Over 54.5

Southern Miss Golden Eagles at South Alabama Jaguars (-1, 56.5)

Burke: When you think about upgrades at key positions, you should think about South Alabama. The Jaguars brought in former South Carolina and Utah QB Jake Bentley to run the offense of new OC Major Applewhite. South Alabama also brought in highly-respected DC Kane Wommack as the head coach after a very successful stint with Indiana. Some of Tom Allen had to rub off on Wommack in his two years in Bloomington and these South Alabama players should play extremely hard for the youngest head coach in FBS.

Bentley has some talent to work with in WR Jalen Tolbert, who will become the program’s all-time leading receiver early in the season if he can avoid injury, and Mississippi State transfer Kareem Walker at RB. On the other side of the ball, Wommack’s influence should be immediately apparent.

The Golden Eagles look to be in a transition season, but first-year head coach Will Hall does not have an experienced QB like Bentley. He has a group with 59 career FBS pass attempts, all from starter Trey Lowe. Inexperience is really the story overall for Southern Miss: A first-time head coach (who will also serve as his own OC, a first-time defensive coordinator and basically a first-time starter at QB. This is also a program coming off a tumultuous 2020 season.

South Alabama should be farther along in the process and opens up the season at home with a renewed sense of hope for the program. My personal power ratings line this game South Alabama -3 and the line is trending in that direction.

Pick: South Alabama -1

Indiana Hoosiers at Iowa Hawkeyes (-3.5, 46)

Seidenberg: A tough Big Ten opener for these two programs with high expectations this season. The Hoosiers are out to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. They have all the makings of a team deserving of their preseason top 20 ranking. Michael Penix Jr is back at QB after suffering a knee injury last season. He’s 10-2 as a starter. Ty Fryfogle (Big Ten receiver of the year) will be his go-to option. Defensively, Indiana ranked first in the Big Ten in sacks last season. They’re led by linebacker Micah McFadden, who led the Big Ten in sacks and was third in tackles for loss. If the defense can force turnovers, they will win this game outright.

Iowa turned the ball over five times in its two losses last season, so ball security will be of the utmost importance for QB Spencer Petras. Offensively, the Hawkeyes want to run the ball and they will be able to behind a stellar offensive line. Defensively, Iowa has played 22 straight games holding opponents under 25 points. They return starters in their secondary who accounted for 11 interceptions last season, third in the Big Ten. 

I ultimately see this game as a coin flip. Taking the points seems right in a game which I feel if it were played in Bloomington, the spread would be reversed. If Penix and Fryfogle make big plays down the field, and the defense gets after the quarterback and causes turnovers, the Hoosiers can win this one outright. Indiana is 5-0 ATS in its last five games as an underdog and 8-0 ATS in its last eight as a road ‘dog. 

Pick: Indiana + 3.5

Nevada Wolfpack at Cal Golden Bears (-3.5, 52.5) 

Seidenberg: If you’re not familiar with the name Carson Strong, get used to hearing it. The Nevada QB is the toast of next year’s NFL draft. It seems every pundit has him as the potential top QB taken. Why? Because he’s really, really good. Strong averaged nearly 320 yards per game while throwing for 27 touchdowns and just four picks in nine games last season. Nevada returns all of its starters from last season, including WR Romeo Doubs (17 yards per reception), and TE Cole Turner (9 TDs). The experience on this team will help them start fast.

For Cal, their defense leads the way. They have a ton of starters returning and they’ve consistently been one of the best units in the Pac 12 under Justin Wilcox. Offensively, Chase Garbers is capable of matching points with anyone, however I think the gameplan will be to slow down the pace and keep Strong off the field.

Another interesting dynamic leading up to this game is Nevada’s practice situation: The team has practiced at Stanford for the past two weeks due to poor air quality in Reno. Following the news with this team, you’ll find a lot of players and coaches looking at this time as a bonding period. Not that a team with pretty much everyone returning from last season needs to work on their camaraderie, but Jay Norvell said these two weeks have really impressed him. He said the team meetings were some of the best they’ve ever had. A focused group with lofty expectations and a dangerous offense is a good recipe for an upset. I like the Wolves as ‘dogs.

Pick: Nevada + 3.5

Thursday

Boise State Broncos at UCF Knights (-5, 68)

Burke: Two new head coaches square off in Orlando. Gus Malzahn takes over for Josh Heupel at UCF, which represents a big upgrade in my estimation. The Broncos will make the long trek from Idaho down to the Sunshine State to play in the sultry conditions of the south. They’ll also do so with a first-time head coach in Andy Avalos.

My personal power ratings have this game lined at UCF -7, but this is more than a numbers play. Boise State will likely tire out in the second half with the humid weather, especially if UCF is able to stay on the field and continue to play with tempo like we’ve seen from the Knights in the past. QB Dillon Gabriel is a great building block for Malzahn and already has a 61-11 TD:INT ratio to his name. Malzahn has a lot to work with across the field and the players won’t have any issues adjusting to a fast offense if Gabriel plays quickly.

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Hank Bachmeier is a solid QB and Boise State has some talent, but rarely are the Broncos in games where their talent level is inferior to the opposition. There should be some concern with this defense as well. While the 2020 was weird, fluky and featured opt-outs and other roster issues, the Broncos had their worst defensive performance since 2014, allowing over 27 points per game and giving up at least 30 points in all three games against opponents with a pulse (Air Force, BYU, San Jose State).

There are a lot of factors here. The weather conditions cannot be overstated, especially in Week 1. The UCF coaching staff looks stronger. UCF has the better QB. The Knights play in a better conference. The Knights should open the Malzahn era with a big win.

Pick: UCF -5

Seidenberg: This is a matchup of two head coaches making their program debuts. It’s Avalos’ first time being a head coach and I’m wondering if there’s going to be an adjustment period. Sometimes first-time head coaches have trouble governing the whole team as opposed to focusing on their unit of expertise. Meanwhile for UCF, Malzahn comes in with a ton of experience and a tremendous record in the SEC, including a career 8-1 SU record in home openers. The coaching edge goes to UCF. 

As for the teams, both are led by veteran QBs in Bachmeier (Boise State) and Gabriel (UCF). Gabriel was impressive last season, throwing for 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He led the nation in passing yards per game and he will be a problem for this Boise defense. Last season, Boise struggled against talented QBs like Zach Wilson and Nick Starkel and they lost their best defensive back in Jalen Walker. The Broncos allowed 27.1 PPG while UCF averaged 568 yards and 42 PPG. Sure, the Knights lost some pieces as well, but enough talent is returning to surround Gabriel with plenty of explosive options, like Ryan O’Keefe and Jaylon Robinson.

The biggest difference I think we’ll see is Malzahn will look to establish the running game first. With Boise State keying in on Gabriel and this passing offense, there may be opportunities for the Knights to run the ball against a defense that ranked 65th in the country against the run last season. If the running game is successful, it will open things up more for Gabriel, who thrives in play action. Defensively, UCF has been one of the best teams in the country in taking the ball away the past few seasons, and I expect that trend to continue. With the coaching edge and the offensive edge, I like UCF to win this game and cover the short number. 

Pick: UCF -5

Bowling Green Falcons at Tennessee Volunteers (-35, 60.5)

Murray: It’s a new era at Rocky Top. Former UCF head coach Josh Heupel was hired to replace Jeremy Pruitt after three years in Knoxville. Honestly, it wasn’t a pretty uninspiring hire, but Thursday night could be a fun night for Vols fans. 

Tennessee announced that Michigan transfer Joe Milton will start at quarterback against Bowling Green. Milton excelled in the Wolverines season-opening win over Minnesota last year before struggling and ultimately losing his starting job. Bowling Green should help boost Milton’s confidence.

The Falcons went 0-5 last season in the MAC and were outscored 225-57, including a 31-3 loss to Akron. The Zips entered that game riding a 21-game losing streak. Bowling Green allowed 6.6 yards per play on defense. Fortunately, the Falcons did make a change at defensive coordinator. but this year will be a youth movement for Bowling Green, which enters Thursday night’s game with 19 freshmen or redshirt freshmen listed on its two-deep. Head coach Scot Loeffler said about 70% of the roster has not played a college game in front of a crowd. Bowling Green played a pair of Power 5 schools in 2019 -- Kansas State and Notre Dame -- and lost both games 52-0. 

Tennessee has lost more than 35 players due to transfer since September 2020 but there might be a way to get the fanbase excited again: Pulverize Bowling Green. In his first game as the head coach at UCF in 2018, Heupel’s squad beat UConn 56-17. Laying five touchdowns is not usually an enjoyable experience, but it’s the only way to go on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium.

Pick: Tennessee -35

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