After a mix of FBS and FCS games kicked off the 2020 college football season, we finally head into the first week that involves Power Five schools.
It may not be a full college football slate, but it's still the first week that feels like a slight return to normal, with six of our top-25 teams set to play. Betting lines have slowly trickled in, with very few games expected to be close. This is typically considered the “cupcake week” for college football matchups, but like most things in 2020, not much of anything resembles what was previously normal.
One exercise that we have incorporated into the NFL betting pieces is an understanding of slate-level uncertainty for each week. This approach utilized a measure called Shannon Entropy, and it is used to quantify information occurring in an event and a variable — entropy — that is calculated using probability. By taking this approach, we can quantify how predictable a particular game (or slate of games) is by taking the probability assigned by the betting markets through moneyline probabilities.
The interesting thing to note is that college football is the opposite of the NFL in regards to Week 1. For the NFL, we see the highest number for entropy for Week 1 slates. It is the exact opposite in NCAA matchups, with numerous games being played in the early part of the season that are essentially warm-up contests for the far superior team.
In past years, Weeks 0 through 3 have had the lowest entropy of any week during the college season. We have also seen this play out the same in 2020. This week's entropy calculation is below the first-quartile threshold for all week and season combinations dating back to 2014. If there is one thing betting markets are certain on, it is who is going to at least emerge victorious in this weekend's slate of games.
After a 2019 season that saw our written college football picks finish 44-43-1, we started the 2020 season in typical fashion by splitting the spread and total in the Week 0 matchup. Week 1 offered little betting value, but we have found some playable opportunities for Week 2.
Using PFF's prediction algorithms as a guide, let's take a closer look at the best games to target in what is 2020's first real week of college football.
North Carolina opens its ACC schedule as 22.5-point favorites at home to Syracuse. Despite the hype surrounding quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels rank sixth in the ACC according to our Elo rankings. They are weighed down by their defense, however, as they sit second in our offensive rankings, right behind Clemson.
This spread has sided heavily with North Carolina, as the team opened at -19.5 before crossing the key number 21 and moving out to -22.5. We see about 2.5% of college games land at -21, which makes this move worth about 4.4% across the given numbers. Unfortunately, it is unplayable at the current price, given that a skewed percentage of both the cash and ticket numbers are shaded towards North Carolina.
One playable option in this matchup looks to be on the total. It has picked up 1 point since the open and now sits at the eighth-most-common number for a college game to land on.
The cash vs. ticket differential is one of the biggest you will find, with almost 85% of the tickets on the over but 63% of the cash on the under. The under is getting the majority of large bets, with PFF Greenline leaning towards this side of the action.
These defenses are in the middle of the pack in the ACC according to PFF's opponent-adjusted grades, so the real key to this total will be the play of quarterback Tommy Devito. A season ago, he posted a 58.4 passing grade that ranked 14th in the ACC; he was pressured on over 35% of his dropbacks and took 46 sacks, the second-most in his conference.
The under offers 1.1% of value, given the expectation that Syracuse struggles to move the ball early, which could set up for an easy win on this inflated total.
Pick: Under 65.5
The Fighting Irish face off against the Blue Devils in their first unofficial game as members of the ACC. Our Elo ranking is high on Notre Dame, with our model placing them at No. 8 in the FBS. And while there is an influx of cash and tickets on the Notre Dame spread, not much has changed since the opening print of -20.5 — the spread actually moved away from the -21 key number despite significant public interest in Notre Dame.
The story for the Fighting Irish will once again be the play of Ian Book, who ranked just 49th among FBS quarterbacks in PFF passing grade a season ago. Book's favorite target from 2019, Chase Claypool, is now onto the NFL, which means it could be difficult for Notre Dame to improve on its 16th-ranked offense for 2020.
Duke, in comparison, had the sixth-worst offense in the entire FBS from an opponent-adjusted grades standpoint, but quarterback Chase Brice, a transfer from Clemson, will look to turn the offense around in 2020. Brice has been respectable across his 389 total snaps and 57 total dropbacks over the past two seasons. The small sample size, which comes from mainly mop-up duty behind Trevor Lawrence, doesn't necessarily predict positive future performance, though it isn't a knock against him either. Still, it seems quite impossible for the Blue Devils to take a step backward from the offense they fielded in 2019.
The total has moved up since the open and can be found between 56 and 56.5 at most books. As we know, 55 has the highest probability total for an NCAA game, so crossing through that number is significant.
Depending on the price available, the under appears to be a solid value bet, according to PFF's prediction models. Only 2% of the total tickets but 19% of the total cash have been placed on the under, highlighting how much the public seems to be buying into the over. PFF Greenline has the opposite mindset and gives the total at 56.5 a 1.3% value percentage. Given that this total has jumped around, it is helpful to monitor Greenline to ensure you are getting the best price.
Pick: Under 56.5
After shocking the college football world in Week 1 by pulling off the upset as two-touchdown underdogs, the Jaguars get their first game at home but still find themselves playing the upset role.
We did see a significant adjustment to this spread market after Tulane opened up as 11-point road favorites, though the number has dropped 2.5 points and settled between +9 to +7.5 in spots. Over 90% of the cash has come in on the Jaguars, which is a big reason why we have seen this spread drop so quickly. The ticket percentages are much more in line, which indicates that the majority of big-money bets have been on South Alabama.
The question now becomes, is the market overreacting to a Week 1 performance, given that most other teams haven't had the opportunity to show their ability yet? South Alabama ranks 124th in our Elo rankings, with Tulane much closer to the middle of the pack at 67th.
Desmond Trotter was able to secure the victory last week but didn't look overly impressive in his first performance for the Jaguars, posting a 59.8 passing grade when all was said and done. This fits in with his 2019 passing grade of 61.1 and is probably reflective of where he is as a quarterback. For Tulane, Keon Howard is getting the nod after playing sparingly in 2019. Howard saw 405 snaps in 2017 at Southern Missouri but posted just a 60.3 passing grade over the year.
Given the state of both quarterback positions, it only makes sense that the market is trending in the direction of the team that has already tasted success this season. The line movement is significant, but PFF's model still finds value at the current 8.5-point spread. South Alabama should be no more than a touchdown underdog, which is where this line is most likely heading to. And at the current spread, PFF Greenline gives South Alabama a 53.1% cover probability. There is some value on South Alabama's moneyline, but given the situation, we recommend taking the points with the spread.
Pick: South Alabama +8.5
PFF's NFL & NCAA Betting Dashboards (Greenline) offer PFF-exclusive insight on moneyline, against the spread and over/under picks for every NFL and FBS game in 2020. Subscribe to PFF ELITE to get access.