Betting News & Analysis

College Football Betting 2021: Best Week 1 moneyline picks

Nevada's Carson Strong throws a pass against Utah State on Thursday. Strong

College football is never short on upsets, and when there is plus-money involved, there is certainly value to be found.

In the early weeks of the regular season, betting lines are based more on projection than actual performance. This means there can be some perceived underdogs that should not necessarily be underdogs. While betting the spread can provide more insurance and a safety net, it usually means laying -110 as opposed to plus-money for an outright win.

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Friday: Michigan State Spartans ML +135 vs. Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern is coming off a Big Ten Championship appearance for the second time in three years. Sandwiched between those two successful seasons was a 3-9 season and a 126th-ranked passing offense with former Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson at quarterback.

Although the Wildcats feature a different offensive coordinator than in 2019, Johnson won the quarterback competition against South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski. The Wildcats return only eight starters, making them the second-most inexperienced team in college football. Not only will they have plenty of production to replace, but the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is also going to be bigger than many realize.

The defense lost three of its top defensive linemen, its top two tacklers in linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher and three starters in the secondary, headlined by first-round draft pick Greg Newsome II. 

Johnson is a former five-star quarterback who has an opportunity to turn things around, but that remains to be seen. His 2019 performance as the starter was, in one word, forgettable. Out of all quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks that season, his 44.6 passing grade ranked 167th out of 175 qualifiers.

Northwestern's top four wide receivers from 2020 are also gone, leaving the Wildcats' offense with Bryce Kirtz — who managed 67 receiving yards last season — as the top returning player in the unit. Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson (72.9 receiving grade in 2019, 727 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns) will need to step up, too.

Starting running back Cam Porter was ruled out for the season with a leg injury, depleting a backfield led by Porter, Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser in 2020 — all of whom are now out of the picture. The Wildcats will likely need to rely on a combination of Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair, Evan Hull and freshman Anthony Tyus III at that position.

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Year 1 of Mel Tucker at Michigan State had its highs and lows. The Spartans opened the season with a loss to Rutgers, but it was followed up with a 27-24 victory over in-state rival Michigan despite being 22.5-point underdogs. The Spartans were outscored 73-7 against Iowa and Indiana before pulling off a 29-20 upset against Northwestern as 13.5-point underdogs. They suffered two losses to Ohio State and Penn State to end the season.

The team's quarterback competition is going down to the wire between Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo. Whoever starts will have a four-deep running back group and the top three wide receivers back. The defense returns five of its top six tacklers from a season ago. Tucker tapped into the transfer portal, bringing in over a dozen such players — six of them being former four-stars. Although they won't all pan out, adding immediate production with that type of pedigree should be beneficial, even though the Spartans are still in the midst of a rebuild.

Saturday: Indiana Hoosiers ML +150 vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

Believe in Tom Allen and the Indiana Hoosiers. The head coach has created a winning culture to buy into. Eight wins in 2019 translated to six wins in a shortened 2020 season alongside a No. 12 finish in the AP poll. The next step for the Hoosiers is a bowl win, something that has eluded them since 1991. 

Indiana returns nine starters on defense after generating 26 sacks and 166 total pressures last year. The unit nabbed 17 interceptions to lead the Big Ten, a top-five rank nationally despite playing in only eight games. As long as Allen is the head coach, expect the Hoosiers to play quality defense, especially with a player like linebacker Micah McFadden (85.8 PFF grade, six sacks).

The secondary of Tiawan Mullen (75.9 PFF grade, four sacks, three interceptions, five pass breakups), Reese Taylor (74.5 PFF grade, one interception, four pass breakups) and Jaylin Williams (72.5 PFF grade, four interceptions) is arguably the best in the Big Ten. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras will have difficulty passing against this secondary. 

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On offense, Michael Penix Jr. finished with an 80.9 passing grade last year, second-best in the conference behind Justin Fields. His 24 big-time throws and 10.3% big-time throw rate both ranked first in the conference. All the receivers, minus Whop Philyor, are back, with transfers D.J. Matthews (Florida State) and Camron Buckley (Texas A&M) joining as reinforcements.

Ty Fryfogle’s seven receiving touchdowns tied him for third-most in the Big Ten in 2020. On deep passing plays, Penix looked to Fryfogle the most; the receiver hauled in 10 of his 26 such targets for 380 yards and five touchdowns. Matthews is more of a returner but brings along 807 career receiving yards, and Buckley has 877 career receiving yards to his name.

The Hawkeye defense finished 10th in the FBS last year with an 89.9 defensive grade and should provide Indiana with some difficulty, but quarterback play will be the deciding factor.

Saturday: Nevada Wolf Pack ML +135 vs. California Golden Bears

Under a defensive-minded Justin Wilcox, the California defense has been the least of the program's worries. Their offense struggles to move the ball, and it's expected to struggle to put up points yet again. Despite putting together a 16-14 record in the past three seasons, California scored 24 points or fewer in 20 of those contests. Yet, the Golden Bears have an 8-12 record to show for it.

Year Passing Yards Per Game Rushing Yards Per Game Points Per Game
2020 101st 101st 20.3 (110th)
2019 99th 104th 21.2 (T-112th)
2018 102nd 81st 21.5 (116th)

Nevada is led by quarterback Carson Strong, who finished with an 85.8 passing grade last year. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks, Strong tied for seventh with an 80.2% adjusted completion percentage. After a 2019 season in which he put up 11 passing touchdowns to seven interceptions, Strong improved to 27 passing touchdowns and only four interceptions. His turnover-worthy play rate went from 2.7% to 1.7%, too.

At his disposal is the best wide receiver unit in the Mountain West conference — one that returns all weapons from 2020. Romeo Doubs racked up 1,002 receiving yards last year and ranked third in yards in accurately thrown passes (420). Doubs was a reliable deep threat, amassing 538 receiving yards (third-best) and seven touchdowns (tied for third-best) on such throws.

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Opposite Doubs is Elijah Cooks, who played in only one game before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. Cooks led the Wolf Pack in 2019 in receiving yards (926) and receiving touchdowns (8). Cole Turner (605 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), Tory Horton (336 receiving yards, five touchdowns) and Melquan Stovall (250 receiving yards) all return, too. Joining them is Marquis Spiker, a four-star transfer from Washington, and Harry Ballard, a transfer from Arkansas Pine-Bluff (938 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns in 2019). 

The Golden Bears' offense has struggled to move the ball recently, whereas Nevada has proven that its dynamic passing attack, led by an NFL arm in Carson Strong, will be exciting to watch once again.

Saturday: Baylor Bears vs. Texas State Bobcats +400

The market pits Baylor as 13.5-point favorites, but PFF Greenline has the Bears as 12.7-point favorites. Head coach Jake Spavital loves his offense, and the Bobcats — despite a 2-10 record — were competitive in a handful of contests last year.

They opened the campaign with a seven-point loss to SMU, covering a 23-point spread. The following week, they lost a 51-48 double-overtime heartbreaker to UTSA after scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to avoid defeat initially. Texas State traveled all the way to Chestnut Hill and lost to Boston College by only three points — the same Boston College that led 28-13 at halftime against Clemson. In the Bobcats' 47-45 victory over Arkansas State, the teams combined for over 1,100 yards of total offense.

Texas State's offense will maintain consistency with Brady McBride winning the quarterback battle, although Tyler Vitt has starting experience. Their top three running backs and five of the top seven receivers from 2020 return. North Carolina transfer Rontavious Groves (474 career receiving yards) and Bowling Green transfer Julian Ortega-Jones (458 career receiving yards) also join the group. Texas State finished in the top 15 in passing touchdowns (26) last year, with 10 of them going to Marcell Barbee, whose 16 explosive pass plays tied for seventh in the Sun Belt. 

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Baylor’s defense will likely be its strongest unit again thanks to 10 returning starters and Dave Aranda’s coaching capabilities. The jury is still out on Aranda as a head coach, although last year is excused because of COVID-19. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes came over from BYU, but there’s no Zach Wilson on this roster. There’s an argument to be made that BYU’s skill positions players are better than what Baylor has currently.

Gerry Bohanon takes over for Charlie Brewer (now at Utah) at quarterback. In 2019, Bohanon recorded a 49.1 passing grade and a 72.6 rushing grade. The offense was limited to eight rushing touchdowns (tied for 99th in FBS) and had zero rushers who exceeded 200 rushing yards. Only one wide receiver notched at least 300 receiving yards.

Baylor's offensive is a work in progress as Grimes takes time to figure out how he wants to arrange his unit. There is a lot of returning experience on a team that struggled to a 2-7 finish in 2020, and it is up to the offense to figure out how to drastically improve.

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