When the college football season kicks off Saturday morning in Dublin, Ireland, the pubs will be open early and Nebraska fans will be ready to celebrate the start of coach Scott Frost’s first winning season.
This is the fifth year of the Frost era, so if it’s not his first winning season, it will probably be his last. The Cornhuskers are expected to be improved this year, seriously, and they need to be significantly better after posting records of 3-9, 3-5, 5-7 and 4-8 under Frost.
“Nebraska is one of those teams we’ve been saying the same thing about for five seasons, but it has not turned around,” Gaughan Gaming bookmaker Vinny Magliulo said. “I think it’s a make-or-break year for Frost and that staff.”
The Cornhuskers are 13-point favorites — up a tick from the South Point opener of 12.5 — against Northwestern in a unique setting. It’s the earliest date for a conference game in Big Ten history, and both teams are eager to move forward and forget last year.
A desperate Frost reloaded by bringing in 44 new players, including 22 transfers. The most important addition is Texas transfer Casey Thompson, who passed for 24 touchdowns in 10 starts for the Longhorns last year. DraftKings has set Nebraska’s season win total at 7.5.
Pat Fitzgerald enters his 17th year as Northwestern coach with a 109-90 record, but he went 3-9 last season and is not surrounded by as much optimism. The Wildcats must ramp up a pathetic offense and nine starters return on that side, led by quarterback Ryan Hilinski and running back Evan Hull.
The trend for Fitzgerald is to overachieve when expectations are low. The Cornhuskers won last year's meeting 56-7 in Lincoln, yet each of the previous four meetings between the teams were decided by one score.
“Fitzgerald is the type of coach who’s had that (blowout) in the back of his mind all year,” said Las Vegas professional bettor Brad Powers, who’s leaning toward a bet on the underdog. “I don’t trust laying that kind of number with Scott Frost and Nebraska in unfamiliar territory.”
I’ll have a play on the purple Cats, but with so much media hype propping up the Cornhuskers, it’s probably wise to wait and see if the line moves to 14 before kickoff. Magliulo said he expects a strong wagering handle for college football’s opening day, when the betting public tends to play the favorites.
This is called Week 0, and on a scale of one to 10, this schedule rates slightly above zero. We have to wait a week for much better matchups. Still, here’s a scouting report on the other six games on the main betting board:
Charlotte at Florida Atlantic (-7): With two good quarterbacks and two mediocre defenses, there’s a good chance this turns into a shootout that goes Over the total of 58. N’Kosi Perry, a former Miami transfer, enters his second year in the Owls’ offense. Perry passed for 225 yards and three touchdowns as FAU rolled to a 38-9 victory over Charlotte last year. The 49ers return eight offensive starters, including senior quarterback Chris Reynolds.
Nevada (-9) at New Mexico State: The Wolf Pack lost their longtime coach, veteran quarterback Carson Strong and every playmaker aside from running back Toa Taua. It’s a total rebuild for the team from Reno. The Aggies return nine starters on defense. Powers said he took New Mexico State + 16.5 on the DraftKings opening line this summer but is hesitant to recommend the play after a sharp 7.5-point line move. “It’s not like I’ve got full confidence in New Mexico State,” he said.
Connecticut at Utah State (-27): Jim Mora Jr., the former UCLA and NFL head coach, takes over a UConn team that finished 1-11. The Huskies suffered from comically bad quarterback play last year, but that should change with the addition of Penn State transfer Ta’Quan Roberson. Utah State senior quarterback Logan Bonner, who went down with a bad knee injury in a December bowl game, is questionable to play. The total is 60. “I do like Connecticut,” Powers said. “I think this is correlated between the underdog and the Under.”
North Texas (-1) at Texas-El Paso: UTEP has been so bad for so long that it’s easy to forget the Miners went 7-6 (8-5 against the spread) and played in a bowl game last year. Dana Dimel has pulled off a magic trick with a dead-end coaching job and brings back 15 starters, including junior quarterback Gavin Hardison and senior running back Ronald Awatt. The Mean Green topped UTEP 20-17 in a pick-’em game last season. The home dog appears somewhat appealing in El Paso. But this card is ugly, and if you are betting on New Mexico State, UConn and UTEP at this point, it might be time to reconsider some questionable decisions.
Wyoming at Illinois (-10): The Big Ten should outclass the Mountain West in this mismatch. Fighting Illini coach Bret Bielema is all about a power running attack and has built one of the Big Ten’s strongest offensive lines. Illinois returns its top three rushers, led by Chase Brown and Josh McCray. The quarterback position is the weakness, and that could be more of a problem down the road, but this battle should be won up front and the Illini have a big advantage. Cowboys coach Craig Bohl is facing a rebuilding job with only four starters back on each side of the ball. His quarterback, Andrew Peasley, is making his first start in this offense and last year’s leading rusher, Xazavian Valladay, transferred to Arizona State. Wyoming’s defense is likely to get overpowered and worn down.
Vanderbilt (-6.5) at Hawaii: I typically like the home dog in the late-night game in Honolulu, but first-year coach Timmy Chang has had to remake most of the roster after former coach Todd Graham wrecked the program. Chang is restoring the run-and-shoot offense, but it will probably take a while for the Warriors to get off the ground with quarterback Cammon Cooper, a junior transfer from Washington State who has no career starts. The sharp money has been on Vanderbilt, which opened -2. The Commodores went 2-10 in coach Clark Lea’s first season but have a more experienced depth chart. A weak SEC team should be able to outman a Hawaii team with personnel issues.