This weekend is one of the biggest of the 2021 college football season. From the conference schedules starting to heat up to one of the biggest showdowns of the season — College Football Playoff hopeful Cincinnati traveling to take on Notre Dame — this weekend could bring madness. And that makes the betting board look juicy.
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Saturday, Oct. 2 | 12:00 PM EST | FOX
The Pick: Michigan ML (+105)
Wisconsin has been let down by the quarterback position when facing formidable defenses this season. Current starter Graham Mertz has panicked at times, giving the defense far too many opportunities to make a play on the ball. Mertz earned a 35.2 passing grade in the Badgers’ two losses against Penn State and Notre Dame, featuring eight turnover-worthy plays and a higher uncatchable pass rate than accurate pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage.
This week, Mertz goes up against an arguably better defense than those two in Michigan . The Wolverines rank top five among all Power-Five programs in team-defense grade. There is a clear mismatch in the trenches with edge defender Aidan Hutchinson — the highest-graded edge defender in the Power Five — and the Wisconsin offensive line. Hutchinson has game-wrecking ability, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do exactly that in this one.
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 12:00 PM EST | ABC
The Pick: Texas -4
TCU’s defense has been a disappointment in the couple of games against real competition so far this year. TCU is fourth-to-last in the Power Five in EPA allowed per play in 2021, which even includes its first outing against Duquesne when it allowed virtually no big plays. The Horned Frogs allowed over 10 yards per attempt against Cal and SMU, the second-worst mark among Power-Five teams against FBS offenses.
Texas, on the other hand, has been on an offensive tear under Steve Sarkisian. Even with a lackluster performance against a good Arkansas defense that was more about inexperienced quarterback Hudson Card crumbling as opposed to the play-calling or team as a whole, the Longhorns rank No. 1 in the Power Five in both per play efficiency on offense and scoring drive percentage (61.9%). New starter Casey Thompson has thrived when on the field with a 91.2 PFF grade.
It’s going to be difficult for TCU to contain Texas, even at home.
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 12:30 PM EST | ESPN3
The Pick: Wake Forest -6.5
Wake Forest looked like a sneaky team to keep an eye on this offseason, and so far, it has lived up to that belief. The passing offense has been firing on all cylinders with quarterback Sam Hartman on the field. On such dropbacks, Wake Forest has one of the five most efficient passing offenses in the Power Five. Hartman has earned an 85.4 passing grade this year and has made minimal mistakes, as evidenced by his one turnover-worthy play. The receiving unit has done its part with only one drop for the entire year en route to the fourth-highest unit grade in the Power Five. This kind of success from a passing perspective was somewhat expected, but defensively, the Demon Deacons have been playing far better than imagined. They are one of five Power Five defenses that have earned a run-defense and coverage grade above 85.0.
Louisville’s offense features one of the most dynamic running quarterbacks in the country — Malik Cunningham — but the passing offense has been inconsistent. As a team, the Cardinals rank fifth-to-last in big-time throw rate in the Power Five and are below the 50th percentile in EPA per play generated when removing scramble runs.
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 2:00 PM EST | Pac-12 Network
The Pick: USC -7.5
This pick has to do with Colorado’s inability to do anything offensively, and USC’s ability to do something in that facet. The Buffs rank fourth-to-last in the Power Five in offensive efficiency and are second-to-last in yards per play (4.2). Quarterback Brendon Lewis has endured some poor pass-protection, as he's been under pressure on 45% of his dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the Power Five. Though that’s not to say the offensive woes are all on the offensive line, as Lewis is the third-lowest-graded passer in the Power Five when kept clean.
While USC and its quarterback Kedon Slovis are among the biggest underperformers in the country, they have proven they are able to put up points. From a clean pocket, Slovis has helped generate a 57.3% successful pass play rate that ranks 17th in the Power Five. If Slovis can prevent the bad plays under pressure, where he has earned a 30.2 PFF grade, this should be a smooth bounce-back win for the Trojans.
12 OLE MISS REBELS at NO. 1 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 3:30 PM EST | CBS
The Pick: Ole Miss +14.5
Ole Miss versus Bama in 2020 gave us one of the best offensive shootouts in recent memory, and they could give us another Saturday afternoon. These two offenses rank second and third respectively among Power-Five offenses in EPA per play generated. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral is executing Lane Kiffin’s offense to near perfection. He has yet to record a turnover-worthy play in 2021 and owns an 89.6 PFF grade for the season. Since 2020, Corral has earned a passing grade above 75.0 in 10 of his 13 starts, the highest rate in the country among active passers.
Alabama has a more inexperienced passer in 2020’s No. 1-rated quarterback recruit Bryce Young, but he has shown encouraging signs through his first four starts. In fact, he’s coming off a 94.8 PFF grade in Week 4 against Southern Miss, the highest by a Bama quarterback in the PFF College era. However, can he replicate that kind of performance and match the consistency from Ole Miss and Corral this week? Young’s first few starts were reliant on third down and pressured passing success, which isn’t a stable way to win.
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 5:00 PM EST | ESPN+
The Pick: Army -9
A lot has gone wrong with Ball State in 2021, including the defense from head to toe. It ranks outside the FBS' top 100 in a load of defensive metrics, including rushing yards per attempt allowed. The Cardinals have allowed 5.5 yards per run attempt, placing them 110th among the 130 FBS programs. Army's triple-option offense ranks 19th in the FBS in rushing efficiency this season, and it jumps to 12th when including all plays. Ball State’s 119th-ranked coverage unit in terms of PFF grade is vulnerable to Army's shot pass plays. This spread might be high, but it’s hard to imagine Ball State containing Army.
INDIANA HOOSIERS at NO. 4 PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 7:30 PM EST | ABC
The Pick: Indiana +12.5
Penn State is out for revenge after losing a heartbreaker to Indiana in Bloomington to start the 2020 season, but winning by double-digits could be a difficult task to pull off.
Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford is in the midst of the best playing stretch of his career. He has earned an 85.0 passing grade in 2021 while recording zero turnover-worthy plays. That said, his two highest-graded performances came against Ball State and Villanova. His performances in 2019 and 2020 demonstrate that he isn't likely to sustain this level of play. Clifford earned a passing grade in the mid-60s in those two seasons collectively, creating six more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws. Offensive regression is something to watch out for.
Perhaps the biggest deciding factor in this game is how Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. fares against Penn State’s defensive front. Penix looked like more of his 2019 and 2020 self against Western Kentucky last week, as he earned an 88.6 PFF grade because he was kept mostly clean. That’ll be difficult to do against Penn State, but Penix proved that his passing performances from the start of the year are far from his true form. The biggest thing that will prevent IU from covering this spread is Penix making bad decisions when under pressure — which could happen a lot on Saturday.
Saturday, Oct. 2 | 9:00 PM EST | ESPN+
The Pick: UTEP -5.5
The main reason for this pick is Old Dominion’s poor-performing coverage unit against UTEP’s passing offense. The Monarchs enter Week 5 allowing a successful pass play at the seventh-worst rate among all FBS programs. Their pass-rush struggles has produced a bottom 10 pass-rush grade in the FBS.
Old Dominion’s corners, meanwhile, have allowed the second-most touchdowns in the country (nine) without picking off a single pass. UTEP has a wildly inconsistent passing attack, but it has one of the top wide receiver duos in the Group of Five — Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett — to help out quarterback Gavin Hardison. Cowing has earned an 85.2 receiving grade and offers big-play ability, as his six receptions of 25-plus yards (tied for fifth-most in the FBS) can attest. Garrett has earned a respectable 73.2 receiving grade and has had surefire hands, recording zero drops on 24 targets in 2021.