The world got a little taste of meaningful college football last week, with nine FBS programs taking the field in five different games. Now, the world gets a five-course meal, as the rest of the 130 FBS schools will kick off their 2021 season from Wednesday through Monday.
PFF is here to provide everything you need to know ahead of the first full week of college football. Below, you’ll find this week’s schedule, game lines, guidance to PFF Greenline picks and a game preview for the 15 most notable matchups. Please note that the lines are courtesy of our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook and are subject to change up until kickoff.
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Thursday, Sep. 2 | 7:00 PM EST | ESPN
Spread: UCF -4.5 (-115)
Total: O/U 68
Moneyline: UCF -200, Boise State +170
Both the Broncos and Knights will be taking the field with two new head coaches — Andy Avalos and Guz Malzahn — who have had plenty of success in the past. Avalos, a former Boise State linebacker who was most recently Oregon’s defensive coordinator, has a good situation on his hands at quarterback and wide receiver. Malzahn, who coached Auburn from 2013 through 2020, has an even better situation at quarterback but not with his pass-catchers.
Starting for Boise State is Hank Bachmeier, who won the job over Jack Sears. Bachmeier earned a 76.3 PFF grade in five starts last season, posting the second-lowest turnover-worthy play rate in the country (1.1%). He isn’t a passer who will go out and completely overtake a game, rather is one who can be relied on to be consistently solid. Bachmeier’s receiving unit as a whole is in good shape, but Khalil Shakir is the primary reason why the group is among the best in the Mountain West. Shakir went from playing predominantly in the slot in 2019 to mostly out wide in 2020, but his production didn’t skip a beat. His strong 88.2 receiving grade from 2019 increased slightly to 88.8 this past season, the ninth-best mark in the FBS.
The big intrigue with this matchup has to do with UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel. He performed at a high level as an underclassman in 2019 and 2020, sporting 81.4 and 90.9 PFF grades. However, that was done in a Josh Heupel offense that is full of simplistic reads. He did precisely what was asked of him by hitting the sideline go balls and taking care of the ball, but how he fares in this new offense is going to be worth monitoring.
Thursday, Sep. 2 | 8:00 PM EST | FOX
Spread: Minnesota +13.5 (+100)
Total: O/U 64.5
Moneyline: Ohio State -590, Minnesota +425
Ohio State is in the conversation for the best roster in college football if you take quarterback out of the equation; however, including the most important position on the field is when things get a little murky for the Buckeyes. Their quarterback room is oozing potential with several five-star recruits on the roster. The only problem is that none — including starting quarterback C.J. Stroud — have any experience.
Stroud will be attempting to effectively replace one of the best quarterbacks PFF College has ever graded, Justin Fields. Stroud, the No. 3-ranked quarterback in 2020, didn’t take a dropback his first year on campus. His deep ball made waves when he was in high school, which has remained the case in practice thus far. How he performs in this outing will say a lot about the Buckeyes’ fate this fall.
No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels at Virginia Tech Hokies
Friday, Sep. 3 | 6:00 PM EST | ESPN
Spread: Virginia Tech +5.5 (-110)
Total: O/U 64
Moneyline: North Carolina -210, Virginia Tech +175
Last year’s Tar Heel offense, led by quarterback Sam Howell, was a true juggernaut. Howell has one of the best deep balls in the country and is coming off a 92.3-graded season. As an underclassman the last two seasons, Howell ranks first in 20-plus-yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654), touchdowns (32) and big-time throws (59 — 15 more than the next QB) among Power Five quarterbacks.
This year, however, Howell will need to do a lot more heavy lifting and be a passer who props up the players around him. The Tar Heels lost their top wide receivers — Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome — and the two-headed monster in the backfield — Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. To make matters worse, Howell will be without his top returning pass-catcher, Beau Corrales, on Friday night.
The play of wide receivers Khafre Brown and Josh Downs — 2019 and 2020 four-star recruits who both lack significant experience — will be vital to North Carolina's early success. And it’s not even a guarantee that Brown is able to go in this one, either, as he is coming back from a spring injury. Virginia Tech’s cornerback tandem of Jermaine Waller and Dorian Strong won’t make it easy for North Carolina’s receiving room. Waller missed most of 2020 due to injury but made more plays on the ball than first downs or touchdowns allowed en route to the seventh-best outside coverage grade among Power-Five corners back in 2019. Strong was a three-star true freshman last year but has looked anything but that. He was the fifth-highest-graded outside corner in the ACC.
Tulane Green Wave vs. No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners (Game moved to Norman, Oklahoma due to Hurricane Ida)
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 12:00 PM EST | ABC
Spread: Oklahoma -31 (-110_
Total: O/U 68.5
Moneyline: Tulane +2500, Oklahoma -8000
All eyes are on Lincoln Riley’s Sooners, as they have arguably their best chance of winning the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014. Oklahoma has secured a CFP spot in four of its seven years but has yet to make it out of the semifinal.
That can change this year thanks to quarterback Spencer Rattler, who returns after earning the best single-season passing grade by a first-time starting underclassman in the Power Five since 2014. Rattler is a playmaker who can succeed outside the pocket better than anyone in the country. He needs to clean up his footwork in the pocket and do a better job at avoiding sacks, but he’s already one of the most talented quarterbacks PFF has graded.
No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions at #12 Wisconsin Badgers
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 12:00 PM EST | FOX
Spread: Wisconsin -5.5 (-110)
Total: O/U 50
Moneyline: Penn State +180, Wisconsin -220
The big storyline in this matchup has to do with Wisconsin starting quarterback Graham Mertz. He joined Wisconsin in 2019 as the 65th-ranked recruit in the 2019 class, per 247Sports, and had one of the best starting debuts of the PFF College era. Against Illinois last year, he didn’t throw a single uncatchable ball and tossed three big-time throws en route to a 93.9 passing grade. Then, Mertz reportedly suffered a shoulder injury in Wisconsin's next game against Michigan but played through it, which could explain why he earned a poor 53.4 passing grade over his last five games.
How Mertz fares against a high-quality Penn State defense that boasts a strong pass-rush and has one of the best defensive backs in the country — safety Jaquan Brisker — will say a lot about Wisconsin’s ceiling this year.
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 14 Miami Hurricanes
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 3:30 PM EST | ABC
Spread: Alabama -18.5 (-105)
Total: O/U 61
Moneyline: Alabama -1000, Miami (FL) +650
Alabama's offense produced like no other over the past few seasons. The Crimson Tide generated a colossal 0.31 expected points added (EPA) per play since 2019, the highest in the Power Five by a substantial margin. Alabama hasn't generated negative EPA per play in a single game since its 2018-19 title loss to Clemson. That means the team was in positive territory in every single game of Steve Sarkisian’s playcalling tenure over the past couple of years, and he is now Texas' head coach.
Along with welcoming in a new offensive play-caller, Alabama will also have a new starting quarterback in Bryce Young while also riding with inexperienced but promising receivers. Young made a few too many mistakes while playing mop-up duty as a true freshman, but the 2020 No. 2-ranked overall recruit got through his progressions, flashed a good arm and displayed an impressive ability to extend plays and make throws when knocked off rhythm.
Young is a promising talent, and wide receiver John Metchie III and running back Brian Robinson Jr. are top-10 players at their respective positions. Still, offensive regression should be expected from the Crimson Tide. The biggest question is how quickly their young players in prominent roles can get up to speed, which only makes their season-opener against D’Eriq King and the Miami Hurricanes more interesting.
No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers at No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 3:30 PM EST | BTN
Spread: Iowa -3.5 (-110)
Total: O/U 45
Moneyline: Indiana +150, Iowa -170
Indiana has removed the “just a basketball school” moniker they have long had, as the Hoosiers are ranked in the preseason AP top 25 for the first time since 1969 and have every chance of inching their way back into the top 10.
They are led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country when healthy, Michael Penix Jr. Despite playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football last year, Penix managed an 82.9 PFF grade in six starts before tearing his ACL in Week 13. Only four other FBS quarterbacks spent a higher rate of their dropbacks under pressure than Penix (41%), yet the Hoosier still played well. He remained calm in collapsing pockets, converting pressure to sacks at an astronomically low rate of 7.4% — the best mark in the FBS. None of this is surprising after what we saw from Penix back in 2019, when he posted an 84.0 PFF grade across six starts.
For Iowa, the quarterback position is where the concerns lie. Spencer Petras returns as the starter after earning a 56.9 passing grade last season. He owned the fifth-worst big-time throw rate in the FBS last season and was among the most inaccurate passers. Throw in the fact that the Hawkeyes lost their top two wide receivers from last season — Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — and there is some real concern with their offense. The defense, on the other hand, is of no concern, as it is set to have one of the best coverage units in the country. Iowa finished second among Power-Five teams in EPA allowed per pass play last season and return its most important contributors from that unit, including outside corners Riley Moss and Matt Hankins and free safety Jack Koerner.
No. 23 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns at No. 21 Texas Longhorns
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 4:30 PM EST | FOX
Spread: Texas -8 (-110)
Total: O/U 58
Moneyline: Louisiana +245, Texas -310
New Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian gave the starting quarterback job to 2020 four-star recruit Hudson Card, who was the fourth-ranked player at the position behind Young, D.J. Uiagalelei and Stroud. He won’t have it easy in his debut, as he goes up against one of the best secondaries in the entire country. Last year’s Louisiana team ranked top 10 nationally in team coverage grade (89.5) and fifth in EPA per pass allowed (-0.21). They bring back every single contributing defensive back from that group, so there is no reason to expect a dip in performance in 2021.
San Jose State Spartans at No. 15 USC Trojens
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 5:00 PM EST | Pac-12 Network
Spread: USC -14 (-110)
Total: O/U 59.5
Moneyline: San Jose State +460, USC -650
It’s do-or-die time for USC quarterback Kedon Slovis. He shattered expectations as a true freshman in 2019, earning an 80.8 passing grade and displaying precise accuracy. Still, Slovis often looked like a first-year player and made one or two head-scratching throws per game. He maneuvered the pocket like a seasoned vet but also too easily fumbled the ball when someone got their paws near it. Instead of taking that next step forward, he was almost the same player in 2020. He earned an 80.1 passing grade across six starts, which featured 13 turnover-worthy plays but top-notch accuracy underneath.
No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs vs. No. 3 Clemson Tigers
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 7:30 PM EST | ABC
Spread: Clemson -3 (-120)
Total: O/U 51.5
Moneyline: Georgia +140, Clemson -160
Georgia is going to be without its top offensive and defensive player against Clemson Saturday Night. Dynamic receiving weapon Arik Gilbert is not with the team right now due to personal reasons, and slot corner Tykee Smith is out due to injury. Along with those two, the Dawgs will be without tight end Darnell Washington in addition to wide receivers George Pickens and (likely) Dominick Blaylock.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has proven to be one of the best minds on that side of the ball in the game. His unit has been on a tear as of late, ranking first in EPA allowed per play in three of the last four years among Power-Five teams. The one year they didn't, they ranked second. The talent is there to have that same kind of success in 2021. There are rising stars all over, including cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. in addition to 2020 top-10 recruits Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy.
From the departures of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne to the return of wide receiver Justyn Ross, the Clemson offense is intriguing. D.J. Uiagalelei — a 2020 five-star — will be taking over at quarterback full-time after earning an 83.6 passing grade in his two spot-starts as a true freshman.
FAU Owls at No. 13 Florida Gators
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 7:30 PM EST | SEC Network
Spread: Florida -23.5 (-105)
Total: O/U 52.5
Moneyline: FAU +1100, Florida -2200
The Gators had their offense gutted this last offseason, as they saw starting quarterback Kyle Trask and their top three pass-catchers — Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes — all depart for the NFL. The good news is that they have a promising candidate to effectively replace Trask in Emory Jones. The bad news is that they are relying on inexperienced and/or unproven players in the receiving room to supplant their previous trio.
Jones has never started a game in his three years at Florida, but he has come in on several occasions, flashing the traits to be great. He’s a true dual-threat with elite athleticism for the position and the necessary arm talent to succeed. Jones earned an 80.6 passing grade across his 87 career attempts. He dealt with fumbling issues as a runner in his first season in 2018 but cleaned it up and has since posted an 81.7 rushing grade on 76 carries over the past two years. For perspective, former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was the only FBS signal-caller who posted a rushing grade north of 80.0 in 2020. With Dan Mullen — one of the top offensive minds in the country — as his head coach, Jones can be a successful player for the Gators. The only question is, will the receiving unit do its part?
Jacob Copeland is the big X-factor within the wide receiver room. He was the 2018 class' 69th-ranked recruit, per 247Sports, but has yet to live up to expectations. Copeland’s receiving grade over the last couple of years stands at 61.9, and he owns a concerningly high 16.7% drop rate. Justin Shorter — a 6-foot-5, 228-pound receiver who transferred in from Penn State after 2019 — is another player to watch. He was a top-10 recruit in the 2018 class but has been unproductive for both the Nittany Lions and Gators. He has recorded only 1.07 yards per route run in his career.
This should be an easy victory for the Gators, but it's one where we will find out what kind of potential they have.
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 8:00 PM EST | ESPNU
Spread: Texas A&M -28 (-115)
Total: O/U 67
Moneyline: Kent State +1800, Texas A&M -4500
Kent State has one of the best offenses in the Group of Five. With quarterback Dustin Crum, a one-two punch of Xavier Williams and Marquez Cooper at running back, and slot weapons Ja’Shaun Poke and Isaac Vance, this offense is littered with talent. While the Golden Flashes played only four games last season, they did field the second-most efficient offense in the country — behind only Alabama. That’ll be tough to sustain in 2021, but considering the talent they return, they’ll be vying for the No. 1 spot among Group-of-Five programs.
They won’t have an easy defense to go up against in Week 1, as Texas A&M has one of the best defenses in all of college football. Safety Demani Richardson and cornerback Myles Jones anchor the secondary, but the unit’s biggest strength is upfront. The Aggies have a special defensive line — anchored by 6-foot-4, 290-pound edge defender DeMarvin Leal. He has so much power and impressive twitch. Leal notched an 80.0-plus grade as both a run defender and a pass rusher in 2020, something only four other Power-Five edge defenders accomplished this past year. Interior defensive lineman Jayden Peevy and edge defender Tyree Johnson are two other impactful players alongside Leal.
The biggest thing to watch is the performance of A&M’s new starting quarterback Haynes King, who was a four-star recruit in the 2020 cycle and took only a handful of dropbacks. King is going to be a massive asset in the run game with the help of his 4.50 40-yard speed, but can he be an effective passer? It won’t be easy in Jimbo Fisher‘s offense. King’s output will make or break the Aggies’ CFP hopes.
No. 16 LSU Tigers at UCLA Bruins
Saturday, Sep. 4 | 8:30 PM EST | FOX
Spread: UCLA +3.5 (-110)
Total: O/U 66
Moneyline: LSU -165, UCLA +145
UCLA enters this matchup with a 1-0 record after throttling Hawaii 44-10 in Week 0. Those 44 points were all thanks to the ground game and not so much Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s passing ability, as he earned a 58.2 passing grade and threw only two of his eight passes over 10 yards downfield accurately. This isn’t much different from the last three years, when he earned passing grades of 54.2, 61.1 and 54.6 and had twice as many turnover-worthy plays (44) as big-time throws (21). Thirty-one of UCLA’s 44 points came in the first half when they ran all over Hawaii. They generated 0.64 EPA per rush in the first half and rattled off seven runs of 10-plus yards (four of which belonged to Zach Charbonnet).
Can they have that kind of offensive success against LSU? It’s not going to be easy.
Thompson-Robinson is likely going to struggle against this LSU coverage unit. The defense begins with what is the best outside corner duo in the country, Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks. They have the man coverage skills to lock up any wide receiver in the country. Stingley was the highest-graded corner when playing man on the outside in 2019, and Ricks claimed that honor in 2020. Joining them this year at off-ball linebacker is transfer Mike Jones Jr., who established himself as the top coverage linebacker in the nation at Clemson.
LSU’s 2019 defense tied for 27th in the FBS in EPA per run play allowed. In 2020, that fell to 90th. However, they will be prioritizing plugging the interior and getting back to the “tite” front this year. Given the talent and scheme change, it’d be hard to imagine them not improving in that department this year.
Sunday, Sep. 5 | 7:30 PM EST | ABC
Spread: Florida State +7.5 (-120)
Total: O/U 55
Moneyline: Notre Dame -280, Florida State +225
The lone game on Sunday is one of the most alluring matchups of the week due to the quarterback position.
The Fighting Irish welcome in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan as their new starting quarterback. Coan last started back in 2019, as an injury prior to the 2020 season forced him to miss time and lose his seat as QB1. He earned a respectable 77.0 passing grade in that 2019 season. Coan is a quarterback who can play in structure and is accurate underneath, but he won’t lead an exciting, explosive passing offense. He has to get better throwing the ball vertically.
Leading the other sideline is McKenzie Milton, who will be making his return to the field after a gruesome leg injury in Week 13 of the 2018 season that required reconstructive surgery and almost an amputation. If he returns as the same player before that injury, Florida State will have one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
Milton’s 90.1 passing grade in 2017 and 2018 ranked third in the country. He also was one of college football's best downfield passers, posting the fifth-best big-time throw rate over those two campaigns. His pocket presence and ability to create something out of nothing under duress was also impressive. Milton converted pressure to sacks at an FBS-low rate of 8.1% (the average is more than double that), ranked first in passing touchdowns when under pressure (16) and averaged seven yards per scramble.
Monday, Sep. 6 | 8:00 PM EST | ESPN
Spread: Ole Miss -10 (-110)
Total: O/U 75.5
Moneyline: Louisville +300, Ole Miss -400
This Monday night matchup is all set up to be an offensive affair.
Louisville lost a couple of dynamic playmakers on offense in wide receiver Tutu Atwell and running back Javian Hawkins, but they do return one at quarterback in Malik Cunningham, who could be one of the top running quarterbacks in the country this season. He picked up a gain of 10 or more yards on 38.1% of his attempts in 2020. Not only did that lead all FBS quarterbacks, but it topped the list by over five percentage points. That rushing ability can only get him and the Cardinals so far, as his passing ability and receiving weapons are suspect. Cunningham needs to take much better care of the ball in 2021 than he did last season, when he made multiple turnover-worthy plays in seven of his 11 starts. In all, he earned just a 69.0 passing grade for the season.
There are reasons to be a little bit more confident in the Ole Miss offense despite losing elite slot receiver Elijah Moore to the NFL. The team returns one of the best offensive minds in the country, Lane Kiffin, as well as one of college football’s top passers, Matt Corral. Those two were instrumental in Ole Miss ranking second in the Power Five in per play passing efficiency in 2020. Corral earned a 90.5 PFF grade and piled up the fifth-most deep passing yards in college football that year.
Replacing Moore is certainly not easy, but there are plenty of promising pass-catchers on the roster. Jerrion Ealy — PFF’s No. 5 returning running back — will be getting some reps in the slot, and the program also has Western Kentucky transfer Jahcour Pearson and quarterback turned wide receiver John Rhys Plumlee. Pearson is a quick, shifty player who was the 16th-highest-grade slot receiver in the FBS with the Hilltoppers in 2019. The Ole Miss defense should be better than last year’s unit that ranked second-to-last in the Power Five in EPA per play allowed, but a slightly below-average unit is seemingly the best-case scenario.