NOTRE DAME at PITTSBURGH
For the first time this season, Notre Dame is showing signs of being a national championship pretender. The Fighting Irish are ranked No. 3, but who really believes they belong in the same class with Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State? Senior quarterback Ian Book is having problems igniting the passing attack. Against a Louisville defense that was shredded by Georgia Tech and Miami, Book threw for a season-low 106 yards Saturday. It’s obvious Book misses wideout Chase Claypool, who’s starring in the NFL and scored four touchdowns for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5. Claypool stretched defenses and made explosive plays, and the Irish are getting few big plays through the air. Freshman running back Kyren Williams, who ran 25 times for 127 yards in the lackluster 12-7 victory over Louisville, continues to carry the offense. Before last weekend, Notre Dame was projected to be a 7½-point home underdog to Clemson on Nov. 7. After the Tigers dropped 73 points on Georgia Tech, they are more likely to be 14-point favorites against the Irish. Clemson’s defense suffocates the run, and that’s the primary way the Irish move the ball. On the bright side, Notre Dame’s defense limited Louisville to 233 total yards, and the Cardinals’ offensive speed was no factor. The Irish extended their home winning streak to 22 games, but they hit the road this week for the first time. Pittsburgh, 3-3 with two one-point losses, took a 31-19 loss at Miami that could be considered a positive. The Panthers stayed competitive despite quarterback Kenny Pickett sitting out with an ankle injury. Pickett’s replacement was Joey Yellen, who went 22-for-46 for 277 yards and one touchdown. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said Pickett is questionable to play this week, and that makes it difficult to post a line, but Circa Sports opened Notre Dame -8.
NEBRASKA at OHIO STATE
The long wait is over for Ohio State, which is considered a College Football Playoff team even without playing a game. The Buckeyes have been sidelined while other playoff contenders — Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas — have suffered costly losses. Ohio State’s offense will be triggered again by Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Fields, a Georgia transfer. Fields passed for 3,273 yards, rushed for 484 yards and accounted for 51 touchdowns in his first year in coach Ryan Day’s offense. The Buckeyes scored 34 points or more in nine of 10 conference games last year, including a 48-7 win at Nebraska that was more one-sided than the score due to Day showing mercy to the Cornhuskers. The Big Ten front office showed no mercy when making the eight-game schedule. Nebraska coach Scott Frost was outspoken while challenging the Big Ten to go forward with the season, and the league answered by sending him to Columbus for the opener. Frost’s No. 1 quarterback will be Adrian Martinez, a two-year starter, or Luke McCaffrey, and both might wind up playing in a blowout. The Cornhuskers went 1-5 in their final six games last year, and although Frost welcomes back 15 starters, expectations are low and the probability of a losing season is high. The shortened season means Ohio State needs style points to improve its playoff chances, so Day will run up scores when he gets the chance. Top-ranked Clemson, which scored 73 against Georgia Tech, is the measuring stick. Circa Sports opened the Buckeyes -23, and early money pushed the line to 25. Beware of a dog that could play dead.
IOWA at PURDUE
Sorting out the Big Ten West is not as simple as it appears. Wisconsin and Minnesota are essentially co-favorites, but both teams have holes and the rest of the division is deeper than most prognosticators seem to think. This game in West Lafayette, Ind., is a meeting of teams that could challenge for the division title or finish near the bottom of the standings. Entering his 22nd year at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured FBS coach in the nation. He’s off a 10-win season and a blowout victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl. He’s also on a hot seat after several current and former players were vocal about racial improprieties in the program. Will off-the-field turmoil show up on the field? The Hawkeyes do not have much returning production or veteran leadership, leading some to predict this could be one of Ferentz’s worst seasons. But he makes a habit of overachieving. A lot hinges on new quarterback Spencer Petras, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder with a strong arm. The Purdue defense was poor last year, but new coordinator Bob Diaco, the former DC at Notre Dame, is expected to make major improvements. Injuries wrecked the Boilermakers, who finished 4-8 straight up and 8-4 ATS, and coach Jeff Brohm is recruiting at a high level and has enough talent to contend in the division. Rondale Moore and David Bell form the best wideout tandem in the conference. Purdue won two of the last three meetings, but all went down to the wire, and this should be another close call. Oddsmakers opened the Boilermakers as two-point favorites, but early bettors disagreed and flipped the favorite to Hawkeyes -4.
UNLV at SAN DIEGO STATE
Another new era starts for UNLV football, which has had one winning season in 19 years. Marcus Arroyo, former offensive coordinator at Oregon, lands his first head-coaching job as the Rebels get set to move into new Allegiant Stadium. San Diego State starts the Brady Hoke era for a second time. Hoke left the Aztecs in 2010 to coach Michigan, where he lasted four years. He’s circling back to San Diego to replace Rocky Long, who went 10-3 last season with all losses by six points or fewer. The Aztecs return eight starters on defense and will start a new quarterback, sophomore Carson Baker. San Diego State’s winning formula for Long was a rock-solid defense and a grinding rushing attack, and that should stay the same for Hoke in this game. The Rebels return four starters from a bad defense. Arroyo will probably pick Justin Rogers, a transfer from Texas Christian, or returning starter Kenyon Oblad as his No. 1 quarterback. Rogers was a touted recruit and should have more upside. UNLV has the potential to be potent offensively. In their last trip to San Diego in 2018, the Rebels stunned the Aztecs 27-24 as 24-point underdogs. Circa Sports opened the Aztecs -16, a number that could draw interest from dog bettors.
MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Another so-called make-or-break year for coach Jim Harbaugh begins in Minneapolis, where Michigan has won 16 consecutive times. This is the most attractive matchup of the Big Ten’s opening week. Minnesota is off an 11-2 season and picked by many to win the West as coach P.J. Fleck heads into his fourth year. The Wolverines lost nine players to the NFL draft — only LSU lost more — and will be breaking in a new quarterback on the road. Michigan is a mystery team, but 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior quarterback Joe Milton could solve some of Harbaugh’s problems. Milton has size and speed and, according to reports from practices, is capable of making 80-yard throws. Some insiders in Ann Arbor are comparing him to Patrick Mahomes and saying Milton has the talent to be a future first-round pick. The Wolverines are usually solid defensively under coordinator Don Brown, but he must replace senior corner Ambry Thomas, who opted out to prepare for the NFL. On the other side, Golden Gophers star wideout Rashod Bateman reconsidered his opt-out decision and will play. Bateman, who had 11 touchdown catches last season, is projected as a first-round pick. Bateman will be the top target for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who returns after passing for 30 touchdowns. The Gophers also bring back an experienced offensive line that ranks among the league’s elite. Minnesota scored 31 points or more in 10 of 13 games last season. The Gophers return only four defensive starters, so this could be a high-scoring game if Milton is the real deal. Circa Sports opened Michigan -2 with a total of 56½.
ILLINOIS at WISCONSIN
The Big Ten season opens Friday night with a rematch of the biggest point-spread upset in the conference since 1982. Last year Wisconsin was No. 6, undefeated and looking toward a showdown with No. 3 Ohio State. Illinois was 2-4, had lost four in a row and was a 30.5-point home underdog but stunned the Badgers 24-23. That propelled the Fighting Illini to a four-game winning streak, their first bowl appearance since 2014 and their first non-losing conference record since 2010. Illinois now takes to the road with nine offensive starters returning, including senior quarterback Brandon Peters and a line that has 125 combined starts. The Illini also have their top three receivers back but lose their top three rushers as senior Ra’Von Bonner, the only returning back with more than 15 carries, opted out. No. 14 Wisconsin is starting life without All-American back Jonathan Taylor and leading receiver Quintez Cephus. They are also starting life without quarterback Jack Coan, who is out indefinitely after suffering a non-contact injury to his right foot in practice. Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is regarded as the best quarterback recruit in the history of the program, and the heir-apparent gets the job. Nine starters return for a stingy defense that allowed 16.9 ppg and 287 ypg. Wisconsin opened -20 at Circa Sports before Illinois took a little action, but the line has rebounded to its initial price and the total has seen one-way movement to the Under, down from 55 to 52.
ALABAMA at TENNESSEE
Talk of the demise of the Alabama defense was highly exaggerated after giving up 647 yards and 48 points at Ole Miss two weeks ago. It looked like the No. 2 Crimson Tide was going to have another tough night on that side of the ball when No. 3 Georgia put up 24 points and 264 yards in the first half, but Nick Saban, who was on the sideline after passing multiple COVID-19 tests, made adjustments and his team shut out Georgia in the second half. Alabama’s Mac Jones (24-for-32) threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns as Georgia could not match the Tide’s speed at receiver. Now the Crimson Tide take to the road to face Tennessee, led by Saban protege Jeremy Pruitt. Saban is 22-0 against former assistants, and Alabama is 13-0 against Tennessee in Saban’s tenure. After a 2-0 start, Tennessee was ranked No. 14, its highest ranking since 2016, before falling 44-21 at Georgia. The Vols were licking their wounds after that as Kentucky, which had not won in Knoxville since 1984, came to Neyland Stadium and won 34-7. Senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw pick-sixes on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter and was pulled for a series in favor of sophomore J.T. Shrout, who threw an interception on his first drive. The game was not as lopsided as the score indicated, as the Vols held Kentucky under 300 total yards but were -3 in turnover margin. Pruitt now takes on the extra responsibility of coaching the defensive line as he fired coach Jimmy Brumbaugh from that job Sunday. Alabama opened -17 at Circa Sports, and the professional bettors laid the early number, figuring it would go upward as the public will bet the Tide like it does every week. The current number is -21 and may have some room to increase before potential buyback on Tennessee at a low spot against an Alabama club that is 0-2 ATS as a road favorite.
PENN STATE at INDIANA
No. 8 Penn State begins the Big Ten campaign with a bit of a tricky spot traveling to Indiana. The Nittany Lions host No. 5 Ohio State next weekend. The Hoosiers have been close the last two seasons against Penn State, losing by five and seven points. Indiana led in the second half before an odd fake-punt formation on its own 40 did not work, and Penn State took the lead for good in a 34-27 victory. Indiana will be looking for redemption after a potential win got away last year. No Hoosier will be looking for payback more than senior receiver Whop Philyor, who was knocked out of the 2019 game after two head shots that should have drawn targeting penalties but did not. The Hoosiers outgained Penn State 462-371, the most yards Penn State allowed all season. However, sophomore quarterback Michael Penix will lead the offense in lieu of last year’s starter, Peyton Ramsey, who is now at Northwestern. Both clubs will be under the leadership of new offensive coordinators. Nick Sheridan, 32, the youngest coordinator in the conference, takes over at Indiana, and Kirk Ciarrocca comes in from Minnesota to take the same role at Penn State. PSU quarterback Sean Clifford leads a group of eight returning starters, including four of five on the offensive line as junior tight end Pat Freiermuth opted back in for 2020. Defensively, the Nittany Lions took a blow as star junior linebacker Micah Parsons opted out to prepare for the NFL draft, so Linebacker U will have three new starters on the unit. Circa Sports opened Penn State -9, and Indiana took the action all the way to -6.5. Early bettors are likely playing the redemption spot, plus the potential lookahead and the rumor that junior RB Journey Brown might not play. Indiana has shown it can be highly competitive with the Big Ten elite but always falls short in the end. Could this be Indiana’s breakthrough against one of the conference’s elite?
CINCINNATI at SMU
With the Big Ten opening this weekend and the fullest slate of college football this season, this matchup should not get lost in the shuffle. No. 9 Cincinnati travels to Dallas to face No. 16 SMU in a battle for early AAC supremacy and to gain the inside track for the non-Power 5 New Year’s Six bowl bid. The Bearcats have not played since beating South Florida 28-7 on Oct. 3. Cincinnati’s game last week at Tulsa was postponed to Dec. 5 due to positive COVID-19 cases in the Bearcats program. SMU is off to its second consecutive 5-0 start after a tight 37-34 overtime victory at Tulane. The Mustangs are without sophomore running back T.J. McDaniel and senior wide receiver Reggie Roberson for the season. Nevertheless, senior quarterback Shane Buechele continues to put up big numbers (67.2%, 1,710 yards, 12-2 TD-INT) in Sonny Dykes’ hybrid of an Air Raid and Spread offense. This will be a step up in class for Luke Fickell’s physical Cincinnati defense. SMU has an opportunity over the next two weeks to establish itself as the team to beat in the AAC, hosting Cincinnati and then a Navy team that is unbeaten in the conference (3-0). Early bettors have been on the Mustangs’ side, as Circa Sports opened Cincinnati -2, but now SMU sits as a 2.5-point favorite. This move is likely due to the COVID-19 uncertainty with Cincinnati plus siding with the rust over rest since the Bearcats will be playing their first game in three weeks. Most would have the Bearcats power-rated better than the Mustangs, so some buyback could be coming if Cincinnati can get to + 3 or higher.
OKLAHOMA at TCU
Almost the entire Big 12 had last weekend off, and these two needed it. Oklahoma outlasted Texas in four overtimes to win the Red River Rivalry 53-45. Meanwhile, TCU is coming in a week removed from a 21-14 home loss to Kansas State. Both teams are 1-2 in the conference, and despite puns on social media that the Big 12 has opted out of the College Football Playoff, this is a crucial game for both to stay in the race to reach the conference title game. Under Gary Patterson, TCU is 2-9 against the Sooners and has lost six straight dating to 2014. Last year it looked like the Horned Frogs would pull the upset in Norman. They had driven to the Oklahoma 32-yard line, but quarterback Max Duggan was intercepted. The Sooners outgained TCU 511-204 and had a 30-11 ege in first downs. Lincoln Riley has said Oklahoma has a lot to clean up, including improvement in a running game that is averaging only 3.6 ypc (lowest since 2010), a better passing game (six interceptions and double-digit drops) and a pass defense that is allowing almost 14 yards per catch. Circa Sports opened Oklahoma -5, and the line has increased to -7. The Sooners have won the games after the Red River Rivalry in 20 of the last 21 seasons.
AUBURN at OLE MISS
Both teams are off disappointing losses as small road favorites. Auburn was defeated 30-22 at South Carolina, while Ole Miss lost 33-21 at Arkansas. Ole Miss committed seven turnovers, including six Matt Corral interceptions. The Rebels had cut a 20-0 deficit to 26-21 and were driving for the winning score, but Corral threw a crushing pick-six with three minutes left to put the game out of reach. Although last week’s game was one to forget, Corral and the Ole Miss offense are averaging 335.5 ypg through the air, and Corral is completing 69% of his attempts. Auburn is allowing opponents to complete 65% of their passes due in large part to having only seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries in four games. The Tigers also have problems on offense with just seven touchdowns on 15 red-zone trips. Quarterback Bo Nix became “Bo Picks” with three interceptions Saturday, and he ranks 10th in an increasingly pass-happy SEC at 217.2 passing yards per game. While the Ole Miss faithful seem happy with the early returns on new hire Lane Kiffin and the exciting offense the Rebels have shown in a 1-3 start, Auburn fans are getting restless with Gus Malzahn. After going 12-2 his first year and reaching the 2013 BCS Championship Game, Malzahn is 52-31 and 28-24 in the SEC since. The betting market perception on Auburn is fairly low as well. The Tigers opened -6 at Circa Sports, and the bets have been one-way traffic on Ole Miss, so Auburn is now just a three-point favorite.
ARKANSAS STATE at APPALACHIAN STATE
Who needs a caffeine rush? Watching an Arkansas State game provides the same thing. In their last two games, against Central Arkansas and Georgia State, the Red Wolves racked up 109 points and 1,182 yards of offense. QBs Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher combined for 13 touchdown passes in those wins, and neither tossed an interception. Taking advantage of these aerial exploits, not to mention some leaky opposing pass defenses, are wideouts Jonathan Adams (15 catches vs. GSU) and lanky 6-foot-5 junior Dahu Green, who is gaining almost 17 yards per catch in 2020 with five TDs. The flip side for coach Blake Anderson is a defense that has allowed exactly 52 points to its first two Sun Belt foes, Coastal Carolina and GSU, prompting some to wonder if basketball season has begun early. As for App State, it’s glad just to have a season to play after a spate of COVID-19 cases turned the schedule upside down. By the time this game kicks off, the Mountaineers will have gone 26 days without playing. Early reviews have been mixed for new coach Shawn Clark, a longtime offensive line coach at the school before being promoted after Eli Drinkwitz moved to Missouri. Decorated QB Zac Thomas has gotten off to a rather slow start, having tossed just two TD passes in three games after rifling 26 a year ago. It looks like a dicey proposition to back the Mountaineers, not only because of the schedule disruptions and long layoff but also because of a recent downturn as chalk. They’re just 2-7 in their last nine in that role, including an 0-3 spread mark — all as favorites — this season.
VIRGINIA at MIAMI
We were a bit bullish on Virginia until the last two weeks. After all, the Cavaliers had opened with a thumping win over Duke before giving top-ranked Clemson a decent tussle in Death Valley, handily covering a four-TD spread. Since then, however, the wheels have come off for Virginia, whipped by NC State and Wake Forest. What happened? Perhaps the absence of southpaw QB Brennan Armstrong, knocked out with a concussion in the Oct. 10 loss to the Wolfpack and out again last week against the Demon Deacons, though backup Lindell Stone has been serviceable in relief. Perhaps of more concern to Bronco Mendenhall is a defense that has allowed 40 ppg and almost 440 ypg in the three defeats. But Armstrong might be available this week, and before the Wake Forest game, Mendenhall had covered in nine of his previous 12 as a dog. Miami took advantage of another team minus its starting QB last week when Kenny Pickett was sidelined for Pitt’s 31-19 loss, the Hurricanes’ fourth win in five tries. But a concern for Miami is a running game that mostly stalled against the Panthers, gaining only 2.9 ypc. Some think new OC Rhett Lashlee’s spread is simply asking too much of transfer QB D’Eriq King, whose four TD passes averted disaster against Pitt. If Armstrong can play, the early double-digit price Virginia is receiving from the oddsmakers could look tempting.
IOWA STATE at OKLAHOMA STATE
With Texas and Oklahoma already absorbing multiple losses, this clash in Stillwater might qualify as the showdown of the year in the Big 12. We’re barely to midseason, and it looks as if the Big 12’s last chance to have a CFP contender is probably OSU, the only remaining unbeaten in the league. But if asking regional insiders which is the best team might be in the league, ISU would be a common response. Especially with junior QB Brock Purdy back in gear and looking very much like the NFL first-round pick he is projected to be if he comes out. The Cyclones’ offense achieved almost perfect run-pass harmony in its last game Oct. 10 vs. Texas Tech, with 43 rushing attempts and 43 passes in a balanced attack that tore asunder the Red Raiders for 516 yards. Meanwhile, slashing sophomore RB Breece Hall, with over 100 rushing yards in each game, has been posting better numbers than his far more ballyhooed Stillwater counterpart, Chuba Hubbard. The Cowboys’ three-week break, partly due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Baylor that postponed last week’s game, has allowed starting QB Spencer Sanders to heal from an ankle injury suffered in the opener. But it also might have created rust for Mike Gundy to worry about. Among some compelling trends that apply here are six straight covers for the series visitor, plus the strong 19-9-1 underdog mark for coach Matt Campbell since he took over at Iowa State in 2016.
SOUTH CAROLINA at LSU
Maybe we should treat last season as an outlier for South Carolina and coach Will Muschamp. After all, Muschamp’s teams have usually been profitable receiving points, as they were in 2017-18 when covering 10 of 13 chances as dogs. Not so much a year ago, however, as Muschamp dealt with a spate of injuries and QB inconsistency. The season fell apart past the midway point, and the Gamecocks covered only two of six times in their usual profitable role as underdogs. In 2020, however, South Carolina looks ornery again, partly because Muschamp worked the grad transfer portal effectively in the offseason in his pursuit of a veteran QB. He landed fifth-year senior Collin Hill from Colorado State, from which Hill was fleeing along with coach Mike Bobo, now Muschamp’s offensive coordinator. So far it’s been a proper match in Columbia. Hill is managing the game as Muschamp desires by limiting mistakes with only one pick in four games, while the ball-control aspect that Muschamp and Bobo prefer has been helped by the thrusts of sophomore RB Kevin Harris, a 225-pound battering ram who is gaining better than 100 yards per game. That has helped Muschamp to an early 3-0-1 spread mark (2-0-1 as a dog). Awaiting all this will be a highly disappointing LSU team that might have needed more than last week’s bye, caused by COVID-19 issues at Florida, to cure what has been ailing the defense as coordinated by Bo Pelini in his second tour of duty in Baton Rouge. The combination of graduation losses and opt-outs has depleted the ranks of the defense, but there has been no excuse for the blown coverages exploited by Mississippi State QB K.J. Costello and Missouri’s Connor Bazelak, who combined for over 1,000 passing yards and 10 TDs in their wins over Ed Orgeron’s troops. One possible LSU plus thanks to the unexpected bye was a chance for junior QB Myles Brennan to heal after hurting a shoulder in the loss at Missouri that would have rendered his status iffy for last week if the Gators game had not been postponed.
UTAH STATE at BOISE STATE
The Mountain West made a hasty retreat on its earlier decision to postpone the fall season as soon as it was apparent the Pac-12 would return. Better late than never, which is good news for Boise State, picked by almost everyone to be the team to beat once again. It’s certainly not Utah State. Indeed, many Mountain West observers might be justified in wondering about the direction of the program under coach Gary Andersen, now in his second tour of duty in Logan. Andersen’s team lost focus down the stretch last season, including a 56-21 loss to Boise and allowing 51 to Kent State in a Frisco Bowl loss. Now the Utags must march onward without a first-round draft pick in QB Jordan Love and after projected successor Henry Colombi transferred to Texas Tech. Moreover, defense, not long ago the hallmark of Matt Wells’ bowl teams in Logan and a career specialty of Andersen, dropped noticeably last fall. Utah State fell to a triple-digit national rank in total defense, prompting Andersen to authorize changes that include more 3-4 alignments. Meanwhile, Boise gives off its usual good vibes. Sophomore Hank Bachmeier proved a worthy successor in the long line of quality QBs when he was healthy last season. Coach Bryan Harsin has been careful to take advantage of redshirt rules and properly develop depth in recent years and should be able to again withstand some graduation losses on both lines, this time augmented by transfers including ex-NC State starting OLB Brock Miller.