BYU at BOISE STATE
If there’s a sleeper in the Heisman Trophy race, it’s BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. The Cougars are 7-0 and in the hunt for a major bowl game, but they have two high hurdles to clear in their final three regular-season games. This trip to Boise will be BYU’s biggest test yet. Wilson has completed 74.6% of his passes for 2,152 yards and 19 touchdowns with two interceptions. He’s working behind a veteran offensive line and supported by a deep group of playmakers, so the Cougars will be confident they can trade punches with the Broncos if the game turns into a shootout. BYU has an average winning margin of 31 points, with six double-digit wins. The Cougars’ least impressive performance came in a 27-20 victory over Texas-San Antonio on Oct. 10, a week before their most impressive win, 43-26 at Houston. Boise State, the odds-on favorite to win the Mountain West, is 2-0 against the spread after totaling 91 points in victories over Utah State and Air Force. Hank Bachmeier, a sophomore who passed for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against the Aggies, missed the trip to Air Force for undisclosed reasons. Jack Sears, a graduate transfer from USC, stepped in and completed 17 of 20 passes for 280 yards and three TDs against the Falcons. Sears is a minor drop-off from Bachmeier, whose status for this week is unknown. Boise’s defense must adjust to defending a wide-open passing attack after facing the Air Force triple option. Circa Sports opened Boise -2, and early betting action flipped the favorite to BYU -2.5. The Broncos have not been underdogs on the blue carpet since 2018, when they were + 2 in a 24-17 victory over Fresno State. BYU beat Boise 28-25 last year in Provo, Utah.
ARIZONA STATE at USC
Here’s something rarely heard: Wake up early for this Pac-12 game. Desperate for more attention, the league made this a national showcase game on Fox and set the kickoff for 9 a.m. PT in Los Angeles. The conference’s top quarterbacks, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and USC’s Kedon Slovis, duel in the Coliseum. Circa Sports opened the Trojans as 11-point favorites, and the line held steady. The Sun Devils were 5½-point home dogs in a 31-26 loss to the Trojans last year, when Daniels was out with an injury. Slovis is the most hyped quarterback in the Pac-12 after completing 71.9% of his passes for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. USC is the South favorite, and Arizona State is likely the second-best team in the division. The Trojans return 17 starters for coach Clay Helton, who’s entering his fifth year and his second straight on a hot seat. Helton, 13-12 straight up and 10-15 ATS the last two seasons, has a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell schemes a wide-open attack that will feature Slovis. Daniels was a freshman sensation for the Devils while passing for 17 touchdowns with two interceptions and running for 355 yards and three scores. But the top playmakers surrounding him, wideout Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin, are gone to the NFL. It helps that coach Herm Edwards has had recruiting success, so Daniels will have new talent around him. Arizona State finished last season on a three-game winning streak highlighted by an upset of Oregon. In the offseason, Edwards promoted former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce and former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to co-coordinators of the defense. Edwards improved from 7-6 in his first year to 8-5 last year. The Sun Devils could be dangerous dogs.
CLEMSON at NOTRE DAME
The biggest game on the ACC schedule is missing college football’s biggest star. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 last week and must sit for a minimum of 10 days, so freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will get his second start. The Tigers’ quarterback change makes the matchup against Notre Dame more competitive and throws a curveball at handicappers. Clemson was projected to be favored by 14 points or more with Lawrence. With Uiagalelei, the Tigers opened -5 by Circa Sports and -7.5 by DraftKings, and both books were at -5.5 on Monday morning. Top-ranked Clemson was not sharp in its two most recent victories over Boston College and Syracuse, so those performances contribute to the lower line. The Tigers trailed BC 28-13 at halftime before rallying for a 34-28 win as 24½-point favorites. Uiagalelei went 30-for-41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 25 yards and a touchdown. Travis Etienne finished with 84 rushing yards on 20 carries and 140 yards on seven receptions. This will be Notre Dame’s first game against a ranked opponent. The Fighting Irish defense allowed a total of 23 points in the last three games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville, and the Cardinals are the only team in that threesome with a competent offense. Notre Dame’s offensive leaders — senior quarterback Ian Book (seven touchdown passes, one interception) and freshman running back Kyren Williams (600 yards, 5.7 per carry, seven TDs) — are not as talented as the Tigers’ Uiagalelei and Etienne. In a playoff semifinal two years ago, Clemson was a 10-point favorite in a 30-3 victory over the Irish. This is Notre Dame’s first home underdog spot since the 2018 season opener, when the Irish were + 3 in a 24-17 victory over Michigan. Since 2015, the Tigers are 22-3 straight up and 16-8-1 ATS versus ranked teams. Clemson bettors would be wise to lay less than a touchdown before the number goes up. Underdog bettors should wait for the line to get to 7, which is likely to happen sometime before Saturday’s prime-time kickoff.
UCLA at COLORADO
In a surprising move, new Colorado coach Karl Dorrell recently named senior Sam Noyer the starting quarterback. Noyer played safety last season, graduated, entered the transfer portal and moved home to Oregon. But after Mel Tucker bolted Boulder for the Michigan State coaching job in February, Dorrell was hired and made a call to Noyer to come back. The 6-foot-4 Noyer was a touted recruit in 2016. Dorrell went 35-27 as UCLA’s coach from 2003-07, and it’s interesting to note he was 8-0 ATS as a home dog. He will have to rebuild the Buffaloes on the offensive side after the departures of quarterback Steven Montez and top wideout Laviska Shenault. Colorado, which finished 5-7 in each of the last three seasons, could be an underdog in every game this season. Dorrell’s opener is probably the most winnable game on Colorado’s schedule. Chip Kelly, 7-17 as UCLA coach, was expected to turn things around last year when he had 19 returning starters, but the Bruins’ punchless offense was just as poor as their defense. Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns as the starting quarterback, a year after he tossed 12 interceptions and lost seven fumbles. Still, he is a dual-threat talent and the most experienced QB in the league with 20 games played. One can only guess if the UCLA defense will be improved after allowing a total of 101 points in late-season losses to Utah and USC. The Bruins opened as six-point road favorites, and bettors are basically going in blind with these teams.
WEST VIRGINIA at TEXAS
Sharp bettors were firing on the Mountaineers last week, and the move paid off as West Virginia crushed Kansas State 37-10 as a short home favorite. Jarret Doege passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns, and Leddie Brown rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. A Mountaineers defense that allowed 225 total yards and had three interceptions was more impressive. West Virginia’s Neal Brown is a bet-on coach, especially at home. The Mountaineers are 0-2 on the Big 12 road this season with losses at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The task will be even tougher at Texas, which features Sam Ehlinger, the best quarterback the Mountaineers have faced. The Longhorns are riding high after their most significant win, a 41-34 overtime thriller at Oklahoma State. Ehlinger did not enjoy a huge statistical day, passing for a season-low 169 yards with three touchdowns, but he made big plays late in the fourth quarter and OT. The Cowboys had a 530-287 advantage in total yards, yet the Longhorns were + 5 in turnover margin. The upset of a Top 10 team on the road revives Texas’ hopes to reach the league title game. The Longhorns were 10½-point favorites in a 42-31 win at West Virginia last year. Circa Sports opened Texas -10 in this matchup, and bettors started firing on the Mountaineers again to move the line to -7. The home team has lost four in a row in this series, so keep that trend in mind.
MICHIGAN at INDIANA
It looked like Minnesota, which Michigan impressively defeated in the first week of the Big Ten season, would be the largest favorite (-18.5) to lose outright last weekend. But the Wolverines lost as 21.5-point favorites to Michigan State at the Big House. While Michigan did muster 452 yards on offense, the usually solid defense allowed 449 yards, including 323 through the air. The Michigan defense under Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown has always been able to do two things — play press man coverage and rush the passer. The Wolverines could do neither Saturday. Michigan State stacked the box and forced new quarterback Joe Milton to make plays down the field, and not very many of those were to be had. After a slow start, the Hoosiers pulled away at Rutgers for a 37-21 victory, avoiding a letdown after upsetting Penn State. Michigan has beaten Indiana 24 straight times dating to the 1987 season, which was the last time the Hoosiers were ranked higher than their current ranking of No. 13. Circa Sports opened Michigan -2.5, and the Wolverines were moved up to -4 before seeing resistance to the current price of Michigan -3. The total has dropped slightly from 55 to 53.5. Indiana has played Michigan close lately, with three of its defeats coming by 10 or fewer points. Can the Hoosiers finally break through against a Michigan club reeling a bit off a shocking loss?
NEBRASKA at NORTHWESTERN
Nebraska was supposed to play its home opener last weekend vs. Wisconsin, but a COVID-19 outbreak within the Badgers program postponed that game. The Cornhuskers tried to replace the game at the last minute with FCS Chattanooga, but the Big Ten disallowed that. So now the Huskers will take to the road again to face a Northwestern club that has started 2-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2014. Unlike the Maryland game, which was a blowout from the get-go, the Wildcats had to dig themselves out of a 17-0 first-quarter hole to come back and win 21-20 at Iowa. While the offensive numbers were not impressive — 273 yards on 78 plays — the Northwestern offense has been upgraded under new coordinator Mike Bajakian and Indiana graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey. The defense, with nine starters back, has also been stingy through two games, ranking first in the Big Ten vs. the run at 70.5 ypg and second vs. the pass at 179.5 ypg. Nebraska did have a week off to heal from a 52-17 loss at Ohio State that was a bit closer than the final score. The Huskers have split the last six meetings against Northwestern but have won two of the last three in Evanston. Northwestern opened as a three-point choice at Circa Sports, and the number has danced between 3 and 4 ever since. The total has dropped from 54.5 to 52. Nebraska is still searching for a more traditional running game as quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined for 165 of the 210 rushing yards at Ohio State.
STANFORD at OREGON
The Cardinal had a losing season for the first time in David Shaw’s nine years with a 4-8 campaign in 2019. Stanford’s 10-year postseason streak also was broken due to injuries and below-standard play for an excellent program. Junior quarterback Davis Mills started six games last year, and the job is his after K.J. Costello transferred to Mississippi State. Four of Stanford’s top five receivers are back, as are four starting offensive linemen. However, the Cardinal were hit some by opt-outs. Stanford’s usually potent rushing attack gained only 106 ypg last season, its lowest since 2007. As for Oregon, former Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead comes in as offensive coordinator and likely will have more power over the decision-making than predecessor Marcus Arroyo, who is now the coach at UNLV. Moorhead’s first decision is determining the starting quarterback as sophomore Tyler Slough, the favorite, and Boston College graduate transfer Anthony Brown battle for the job. The Ducks are loaded at running back, but they will have an entirely new group blocking up front. Oregon suffered some opt-outs but still has the most talented team in the Pac-12. The Ducks opened -14 at Circa Sports, but professional bettors see a rebound season for Stanford as the Cardinal have seen the early action, driving the number down to -10. Meanwhile, the total has steadily risen from an opener of 49.5 to 53.5.
TEXAS A&M at SOUTH CAROLINA
After losing at Alabama, the Aggies have won three straight and are being touted as a dark horse for the College Football Playoff as the remaining schedule sets up favorably. The Aggies allowed a 42-31 back-door cover against Arkansas on Saturday but had a 42-17 lead going into the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond (64.7%, 1,244 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs) is finally emerging as the leader the Aggies faithful have been waiting for, and his offensive line, which returned all five starters, has led the SEC in paving the way for 5.3 ypc on the ground and has allowed only one sack in five games. The defense was hit with some opt-outs but continues to progress and has generated 10 sacks in the last two games. This could spell trouble for a South Carolina offensive line that is tied for last in the SEC with 15 sacks allowed. Part of that falls on Colorado State transfer quarterback Collin Hill, who came to Columbia with former CSU coach and now South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. South Carolina’s running game has been relatively productive of late, but Hill, who has only five touchdown passes in five games, will have to make plays down the field at some point. The Aggies have won all six meetings with the Gamecocks since joining the SEC, but three have been decided by seven or fewer points. Circa Sports opened Texas A&M -8, and the line has basically stayed between 8 and 9.5 since the open but has not reached double digits. The total has steadily risen from an opener of 52.5 to 55.5.
BUFFALO at NORTHERN ILLINOIS
Nothing guarantees that any MAC program will keep winning because of its name. In this league, it’s all about the coaches, and NIU has been fortunate to have good ones for most of the last two decades. Joe Novak, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and Rod Carey experienced varying degrees of success, and Kill, Doeren and Carey left DeKalb for greener pastures. But the jury remains very much out on second-year coach Thomas Hammock, who has conducted a roster purge while adding 30 new recruits and 10 transfers. All the shuffling has resulted in NIU being projected near the bottom of the MAC West after the Huskies missed a bowl for only the second time in 12 seasons during Hammock’s first spin a year ago. Coaching is less of a concern at Buffalo, where Lance Leipold has quietly built a consistent MAC contender after posting a record in the lower ranks at Wisconsin-Whitewater (try 109-6 and six Division III titles in eight years!) matched in recent years by perhaps only Geno Auriemma. This has helped translate into 18 wins and a pair of bowl visits the last two years for Buffalo. MAC sources report that Leipold has yet to decide on his QB as holdovers Kyle Vantrease and Matt Myers compete for the job. But the Bulls have the luxury of two 1,000-yard rushers from last year in punishing Jaret Patterson (1,799 yards rushing in 2019) and Kevin Marks (1,035 yards). Buffalo has posted a 26-12-3 spread mark since 2016 but is still looking for its first win over the Huskies since joining the MAC. This might be the year the Bulls finally turn the tables on NIU.
FLORIDA at GEORGIA
Georgia’s Kirby Smart has definitely had Dan Mullen’s number lately with wins and covers the last two seasons, and the Bulldogs’ series winning streak is now three dating to Jim McElwain’s final game in charge of the Gators. But the Georgia offense has dialed back some in 2020 with the limitations of former walk-on QB Stetson Bennett, who has become less reliable, as his five picks in the last two games suggest. Moreover, this is the first time Mullen has a clear edge at QB thanks to Kyle Trask, who might get another look in the Heisman race with Trevor Lawrence out. Trask has improved his 2020 numbers to 18 TD passes and only two picks after four more scoring passes in last week’s rout of Missouri. Florida TE Kyle Pitts looks like another first-round NFL pick. And any doubt the Gators are prepared to go to war for their QB were dispelled last week with Florida’s angry reaction to a late hit on Trask triggering a benches-clearing brawl vs. the Tigers.
HOUSTON at CINCINNATI
Time to take Cincinnati seriously for a place in the New Year’s Six — or perhaps the Final Four? It’s hard to recall the last time the Bearcats were playing at this level, which they displayed again Saturday in a 49-10 romp past Memphis. Among the Bearcats’ advantages are experience, as lightning-quick QB Desmond Ridder now has 48 touchdown passes and 5,603 passing yards in his college career and more than 1,500 rushing yards. While the Bearcats keep humming for coach Luke Fickell, no such crescendo has reached Houston under Dana Holgorsen. He continues to tread water with the Cougars, as his 8-8 spread mark since taking over last season indicates. Early-season COVID-19 distractions that resulted in player absences and multiple postponements might grant Holgorsen a mulligan. But things are not going well, as Houston is coming off its worst effort of the year, a 44-21 loss when held scoreless for the first 40 minutes against a depleted UCF defense. And speaking of defense, the Cougars didn’t have much vs. UCF, surrendering a whopping 681 yards. Any team facing Cincy this year had better have some momentum, which is something UH is clearly lacking.
OKLAHOMA STATE at KANSAS STATE
This showdown lost a lot of luster last week when both went down to defeat, K-State in thumping fashion at West Virginia and Oklahoma State in bitter fashion in OT at Stillwater vs. Texas. The loss effectively took the Cowboys and the Big 12 out of the Final Four discussion. Kansas State is probably not going to stretch the Cowboys’ defense as could Sam Ehlinger and Texas, but the challenge for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is to prepare for something different this week as Wildcats freshman QB Will Howard is more of a run-first option. Can the notorious Knowles blitz packages adjust? Meanwhile, touted Cowboys junior RB Chuba Hubbard is far off his pace from last season, when he ran for over 2,000 yards. The key for K-State is not to lose contact as it did last week at Morgantown, where an offense not designed to play catch-up got overwhelmed by the Mountaineers’ much-improved defense. Howard must avoid mistakes early and K-State must play the ball-control and field-position game that always provides it a good chance. Lastly, with the Wildcats getting significant points from the oddsmakers, take a long look at some of the well-established trends of KSU as an underdog — 8-3 for Chris Klieman since last year and 23-8 since 2016 — and a series angle in which the underdog has covered four of the last five meetings.
WASHINGTON at CALIFORNIA
It’s the Washington debut for coach Jimmy Lake, promoted when Chris Petersen retired after last season. It’s not the easiest opener, however. This matchup vs. Cal has proven very difficult the last two seasons, with the Golden Bears winning outright as dogs both times. We’re not sure things will get any easier for the Huskies, especially as Lake oversees plenty of changes. That includes only four starters returning from an offense that lost QB Jacob Eason to the NFL plus 1,000-yard rusher Salvon Ahmed and the team’s top two receivers. Compare that with the 18 starters back in Berkeley for third-year coach Justin Wilcox, who has quickly propped up the Golden Bears thanks to a granite defense. Wilcox’s club probably would have done better than an appearance in the Redbox Bowl last season, an easy win over Illinois, had QB Chase Garbers not missed a stretch of games with an injury after Cal bolted to a 4-0 start. With Garbers and most of his teammates back, the Golden Bears could emerge as the team to beat in the Pac-12 North. The Bears have opened as short-priced dogs again this week, and they are 17-7 vs. the line in that role under Wilcox since 2017.