College Football Odds & Picks: How to Bet UNC vs. Virginia Tech, Michigan State vs. Northwestern, More Friday Games (Sept. 3)
Friday Night Lights.
College Football has been teasing us, stringing us along for seven consecutive days. The season officially (unofficially) “began” last Saturday during “Week Zero.” Don’t get us wrong: We were ecstatic about having football back. I think we’ve all lost more than enough money betting on baseball, and College Football’s Week Zero slate was just what we needed.
Here’s the problem, though. It wasn’t enough. All it did was whet our appetites as we stared down the Week 1 Saturday slate with laser-point focus.
But then … something beautiful happened: Wednesday came around, delivering us Jacksonville State vs. UAB and yet another opportunity to bet on college football rather than finally mending broken relationships, developing our self-image, finally starting a retirement plan … but I digress.
Thursday night followed up by delivering in spades — 27 games of juicy college football action lasting deep into the night (thanks UCF-Boise State for the major delay). And now, finally — mercifully — we’ve come to the final obstacle to Saturday’s glorious Week 1 return.
It’s Friday night, people. Do you really want to go to “couples dinner” and deal with public face masks, rising gas prices, finding a valet, and all that nonsense?
Or instead, wouldn’t you prefer to join us as we yell and scream at Wake Forest vs. Old Dominion? That’s what I thought.
Let’s do this.
Week 1 College Football Picks for Friday, Sept. 3
Click the team logos for one of the matchups below to navigate to a specific betting preview for Friday evening’s Week 1 college football slate.
Listed odds have been updated as of Thursday, Sept. 2. Specific bet recommendations come from the sportsbook offering preferred odds as of writing.
Always shop for the best price using our NCAAF Odds page, which automatically surfaces the best lines for every game.
Photos via Getty Images.
6 p.m. ET
Before the pandemic, the ACC Coastal Division fielded seven different teams in seven straight years for the ACC Championship Game.
North Carolina last won the Coastal in 2015, while Virginia Tech took home the ring in 2016. This is the one division in all of FBS that has the biggest blowouts and plenty of underdog victories. Although the division is a crapshoot, these two teams are heading in different directions.
Press conferences are assembled when a coaching regime ends, but Virginia Tech held one at the end of the 2020 season to confirm Justin Fuentes is still the coach.
The days of Beamer ball with elite defense and special teams are no longer a part of the Hokies program. North Carolina is headed in a different direction, led by head coach Mack Brown and Heisman hopeful quarterback Sam Howell.
Remnants of Hurricane Ida should be well past Blacksburg before these two teams kick off ACC play.
This may be the season the ACC finally has a shake-up at the top.
The Tar Heels were shut out in the second half against playoff-bound Notre Dame, but a pair of field-goal losses to Virginia and Florida State sent North Carolina to the Orange Bowl. Per TARP, Brown returns the national average of 76% on both sides of the ball but loses key explosive elements on offense.
This was a top-10 offense in terms of Success Rate and Finishing Drives, two statistics that should continue with the return of Howell under coordinator Phil Longo.
On the defensive side, coordinator Jay Bateman returns looking for improved efficiency from a unit that loses just two tacklers out of the top 20.
With no Clemson on the schedule, while playing host to Miami later in the season, the Tar Heels are expected to give the Tigers a challenge for the ACC.
Tar Heels Offense
The scheme for the Heels is not expected to change, as Longo has long coached successful uptempo offenses since his days at Ole Miss and the current FCS champions in Sam Houston State.
North Carolina runs exclusively out of the 11 formations no matter the down or distance with a tendency to move toward the pass on 53% of snaps.
Howell led an air attack that ranked 11th in Passing Success Rate and eighth in Finishing Drives.
While the offensive line returns every snap from 2020, there must be improvements made with a Sacks Allowed rank outside the top 100. Specifically, Asim Richards and Jordan Tucker are both at the tackle positions and allowed pressure on 7% of dropbacks.
Howell will be looking for new explosive targets after the departure of Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams.
Sam Howell to Khafre Brown TD @Sam7Howell @khafre_brown #UNC pic.twitter.com/12unByRrVc
— Tar Heel Tapes (@TarHeelTapes) October 3, 2020
Wide receiver Khafre Brown will lead a group of talented targets shy of experience. Brown was one of the most elusive targets for the Heels in 2020, averaging 11.3 yards after catch. The redshirt freshman ranked 13th of all receivers with 20 targets in NFL rating, per PFF.
Running back Ty Chandler transfers in from Tennessee, where the senior posted 15 missed tackles in just 100 rushing attempts. More importantly, out of those 100 attempts, Chandler converted 24 first downs and will serve as an excellent complementary piece to Longo’s air attack.
UNC meet your new RB1
Ty Chandler + Sam Howell in the backfield this season 🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 6, 2021
Tar Heels Defense
North Carolina brought in Bateman in 2019 from Army to create a defense that could improve against both the pass and the rush.
The Tar Heels have primarily worked out of a 2-5-4 and 2-4-5 defense through the past two years, generating top-25 marks in Sack Rate but lagging efficiency numbers against the rush.
A rank of 104th in Line Yards makes North Carolina a bend-don’t-break system, but a Finishing Drives rank outside the top 75 proves the defense needs better red zone play.
The secondary is one of the better units in the ACC with the returns of cornerbacks Storm Duck and Tony Grimes. Safety Trey Morrison led the team in pass breakups, but the defense comes back to being able to stop the rush.
Morrison recorded 32 tackles on the season but missed a whopping 17. Those issues were also present in linebackers Jeremiah Gemmel and Tomon Fox, who combined for 21 missed tackles.
Teams with a strong rushing attack can extend clock and keep the potent Tar Heels offense off the field.
There may not have been a bigger funnel for the transfer portal than Blacksburg, with the exception of quarterback Hendon Hooker’s landing spot at Tennessee. Quarterback Quincy Patterson also transfers to North Dakota State, leaving Braxton Burmeister as the default signal-caller under center.
The biggest loss may be running back and special teams extraordinaire Khalil Herbert.
Justin Hamilton was promoted from coaching the secondary to defensive coordinator after the retirement of Bud Foster. The move has yet to produce any similarities to the Foster era. From a revolving door of transfers and COVID-19, the Hokies posted numbers outside the top 100 in Defensive Line Yards and Finishing Drives.
The fear associated with an “Enter Sandman” introduction at Lane Stadium is no longer associated with this defense.
Burmeister has had his moments over the years under center for the Hokies and previously at Oregon. In 2020, the junior posted the best numbers of his career with five big-time throws and two turnover-worthy plays. The issue is those statistics were built solely against Duke.
Throwing out the results of the Blue Devils game last season, Burmeister’s ratio is a single big-time throw to 11 turnover-worthy plays. The good news is that the quarterback owns the ability to run.
Braxton Burmeister hits #25 with the Stop-N-Go #ThankYouComeAgain pic.twitter.com/cyXbu1bSsR
— BFISH (@BFISH804) September 30, 2020
Burmeister had 181 yards on designed runs and another 48 through scrambles on 32 attempts. There are 15 missed tackles in his career under center, so there will be chances to catch North Carolina on designed plays.
Keeping a clean pocket may be an issue for a patched-up offensive line, as Burmeister had a 65% completion rate in a clean pocket and 34% when pressured.
While the running back stable is light in the experience department, the Hokies do return their top passing three targets in Tayvion Robinson, Tre Turner and tight end James Mitchell.
Robinson forced nine missed tackles on 38 receptions last season.
The scheme for Fuentes was led by the 12 formation over the past two years, leaning on the rush in 60% of snaps. For the Hokies to get the most out of this offense, there may need to be a tweak to scheme and the run-pass ratio without Herbert.
The Hokies were tenacious in passing downs, generating a rank of 14th in Sack Rate. The main sources of those sacks have all moved on from Virginia Tech.
Rayshard Ashby and Justus Reed accounted for 13 quarterback hits and 10.5 sacks in 2020, as the Hokies must find replacements to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Leading tackler Chamarri Cooper is one of several defenders who aims to amp up the Havoc.
So @HokiesFB NB Chamarri Conner is quickly becoming a favorite of mine!
6'0 211lbs SR
Trinity Christian Alum
532 Special Teams Snaps
I can watch @chamarriconner9 play the run & tackle all day long! Find #22 and enjoy! Some Chuck Clark vibes to his game! pic.twitter.com/RKyA8l5pGs
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) August 2, 2021
The remaining defensive numbers are not pretty.
Ranks outside the top 60 in coverage and tackling highlight a defense that allowed plenty of points in 2020.
There were plenty of injuries and COVID-19 dynamics that impacted Virginia Tech throughout last season, but improving a Defensive Rushing Success Rate while losing their best Havoc personnel will be no easy task for the Hokies.
North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech Betting Pick
Weather from Hurricane Ida will have cleared the area before kickoff after dumping days worth of rain. Because of the “trays of natural turf positioned above asphalt,” there should be no slowing of either team thanks to drainage.
Still, there may be a reason to think points will not come as easy as the 101 scored in Chapel Hill in 2020.
Senior wide receiver Beau Corrales is out for the game, while Brown and center Brian Anderson are banged up and questionable for the Heels.
Depth was a concern on the offensive line throughout camp, especially at the center position. Howell will be tasked with getting a rhythm down alongside his new targets, while the offensive line must improve a poor Sacks Allowed Rate.
Virginia Tech’s defense was torched in last season’s game, but both sides lose explosiveness at the skill positions.
Burmeister is not expected to go deep against a talented Heels secondary but rather expand the field and use motion to get his top three targets in space. If the Hokies are successful in getting the ball into their playmakers’ hands, the Heels must have a remedy to their ongoing issues in tackling.
Considering Howell will need game repetition with his targets and Burmeister having just a single big-time throw in his career, there should be consideration for the under.
Our Action Network projection makes North Carolina a four-point favorite with a total of 64.5.
Considering explosive playmakers such as Hooker, Herbert, Brown, Newsome and Williams have all moved on, this is a small play on the first half and full-game under.
Pick: Under 64 | 1H Under 31
7 p.m. ET
CBS Sports Network
Duke makes the short trip west to take on in-state foe Charlotte in a rematch of a 53-19 drubbing in Durham last season.
The 49ers enter as short underdogs, but can they hang with their ACC foe on Friday night?
Let’s dive in.
The Blue Devils are projected to be in the basement of the ACC in David Cutcliffe’s 13th year at the helm. They’ll have new faces all over the field, including at quarterback, with Chase Brice transferring to Appalachian State.
Duke returns just 47% production on offense and 60% on defense, according to TARP, which is way below the NCAA average in the year of the super senior.
The Blue Devils’ win total for the season sits at only 3.5, and if they are going to eclipse that, they have to win on the road at Charlotte to open the season.
Blue Devils Offense
Duke’s offense last season was, for lack of a better word, horrendous. It couldn’t move the ball through the air or on the ground, ranking outside the top 85 in both Passing and Rushing Success Rate.
Brice’s transfer from Clemson did not go as planned, as he threw for only 6.2 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. However, he has now moved on, which means Gunnar Holmberg — who had only 28 dropbacks last season — will take over.
Holmberg doesn’t throw down the field much and is accurate on short-distance passes. His problem is stretching the field.
Holmberg was a three-star coming out of high school and had been patiently waiting for three years for his opportunity to be the starter.
However, he’s not going to have great protection because the offensive line is in a state of flux, with a guard and former tight end moving over to play the two tackle positions. For an offensive line that was outside the top 100 in Havoc Allowed and Sack Rate, things do not look like they are going to get better anytime soon.
If the offensive line can improve, it may make way for an improved run game behind Mataeo Durant, who was amazing last season. He gained 6.8 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns in tandem with Deon Jackson. However, running behind a makeshift offensive line is not an easy task to do.
Duke will have some players back at the skill positions, especially at wide receiver.
Its top two pass catchers — Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun — return, along with a potential breakout candidate in Jake Marwede at tight end. Their potential success will depend on the play of Holmberg, though.
Turnover luck might be coming the Blue Devils’ way, too, because they turned the ball over a staggering 39 times in 11 games, which led the FBS.
A lot of that had to do with Brice, but a weak offensive line does not make things any easier for the offense.
Blue Devils Defense
The front seven is going to be a major concern for the Blue Devils this season. It’s going from one of best units in the ACC to one of the worst.
The reason for that is the departure of their top three players on the defensive line, including Chris Rumph and Victor Dimukeje, who combined for 15.5 sacks last season. So, it’s safe to say Duke will not be earning a Sack Rate rank of 11th like it did last season.
Duke was terrible against the run last season, ranking 96th in Rushing Success Allowed, 88th in Line Yards, and 112th in Stuff Rate. It does bring back some experience in their linebacking corps, but things are not going to improve with the loss of their two best defensive players.
Defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri ranked 110th in EPA Per Run allowed in 2020, per PFF.
The Blue Devils secondary was a bit of a mess last season, ranking 86th in coverage, per PFF. However, they had to deal with a couple of injuries last year with Lummie Young and Josh Blackwell missing considerable time.
They are back healthy this season and should give Duke a boost in the secondary after the Blue Devils allowed 7.9 yards per attempt in 2020.
Charlotte begins year three of the Will Healy era after a 2-4 season in 2020.
The 49ers are projected to finish in the top three of the Conference USA East division, and that is pretty much reliant on the performance of long-time starting quarterback Chris Reynolds.
The Niners are +2500 to win Conference USA and have a win total of 5, so they are not expected to light the conference up, but they should return closer to what they were in 2019, especially offensively.
Charlotte’s offensive success is pretty much entirely reliant on Reynolds, who has been the starting quarterback since 2018. He had a career year in 2019, throwing for 8.8 yards per attempt and 22 touchdowns.
Last season, though, he took a big dip, as his yards per attempt went down to 7.5.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that he tore his labrum on the first play of the season last year and played through the injury in the final five games of the season.
He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA (in 2019, he had the highest offensive rating among all QBs, per PFF), so if he is back and healthy, the Charlotte offense is going to improve.
Took a few 3 and Outs, but Charlotte on the board with a Victor Tucker 24 yard catch from Chris Reynolds@CharlotteFTBL | #GOLDstandard pic.twitter.com/00Ve39fud9
— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) September 28, 2019
Reynolds will have plenty of targets to throw to like Victor Tucker, Taylor Thompson, and Cameron Dollar, who helped a hurt Reynolds still throw for over the NCAA average in terms of yards per attempt.
Charlotte ranked 72nd in Passing Success last season, so that number will no doubt improve with a ton of weapons around a healthy Reynolds.
Charlotte really leaned on its rushing attack last season, running the ball 57% of the time. I highly doubt it’s going to run at that high of a percentage this season for two reasons:
- It has the most inexperienced offensive line in Conference USA and is coming off an Offensive Line Yards ranking of 121st.
- It’s breaking in a new running back in Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd, as its top two rushers from last season are gone.
Weirdly enough though, the 49ers ranked 12th in Finishing Drives last season, so it’s an offense that can be effective and put points on the board.
Also, they did lose to Duke, 53-19, last year, but the Blue Devils only outgained them 401-348.
This is where things get dicey for the 49ers.
Charlotte is projected to have one of the worst defenses in Conference USA and will be relying on a ton of transfers, especially on the defensive line.
Healy brought in a couple of Power Five transfers for the defensive line like Kofi Wardlow from Notre Dame and Joshua Bailey from Iowa State, who were both former three-star recruits coming out of high school.
The defensive line ranked 105th in Rushing Success Rate Allowed and 96th in Defensive Line Yards, and Duke ran all over it last season, putting up 274 yards on 38 carries. So, hopefully for the 49ers, the addition of a few Power Five transfers can improve things.
Charlotte’s secondary was atrocious last season, ranking 101st in Passing Success Allowed. However, it earned a PFF coverage ranking of 60th and only allowed 7.5 yards per attempt.
In fact, in the game against Duke last season, the Blue Devils racked up only 127 passing yards on 17 attempts. However, they lose most of their secondary from last season and will be relying purely on transfers in 2021.
Duke vs. Charlotte Betting Pick
I think Charlotte is a live dog at home to open the season. With an experienced quarterback like Reynolds with weapons around him, it should be able to move the ball on Duke’s secondary.
There are also way too many question marks with Duke’s offense breaking in a new starting quarterback and having a makeshift offensive line.
This line has stayed pat since the opening of -6.5.
The ticket percentage sits at 65% in favor of Duke -6.5, but 57% of the money is on Charlotte +6.5, so that would tell me the line is likely going to drop to +6 rather than go up to 7.
I have Charlotte projected as only +3.67 underdogs, so I think there’s some value on the 49ers at home with an experienced quarterback at +6.5. However, I would only play it down to +5.5.
Pick: Charlotte +6.5
7 p.m. ET
By Matt Wispe
Old Dominion travels to Winston-Salem to take on Wake Forest in the 2021 debut for both teams.
Old Dominion is coming off of a canceled 2020 season, and Wake Forest is coming off of its worst season since 2015. Both of these teams enter the year with reasons for optimism.
Weather conditions couldn’t be better, as the forecast is in the mid-70s with only five mile-per-hour winds. This should allow these two offenses the best chance to score.
Whether the team talent will do the same is a much different question, however.
It will have been 633 days since Ricky Rahne was announced as the head coach at Old Dominion. In his debut game, he’ll hope to show an improved team from the 2019 team that finished 1-11 and led to the resignation of Bobby Wilder.
The Monarchs have a TARP rating of 67% on offense and 63% on defense. They heavily utilized the transfer portal to improve their roster, and according to the depth chart, they’ll be starting five transfer players.
Rahne brings along Kirk Campbell, who served as an offensive analyst alongside him at Penn State.
In his two seasons at Penn State, his offenses averaged 34.7 points per game and 24.5 seconds per play. While he’s unlikely to maintain the same level of success, the Monarch offense has potential
Rahne has made an intentional decision to not name a starting quarterback until the game kicks off. However, based on his time at Penn State, there’s a reasonable assumption that he’ll prefer a mobile QB. Both Stone Smartt and D.J. Mack provide some upside as runners, with Smartt rushing for 181 yards and five touchdowns in 2019 and Mack rushing for 516 yards and nine scores during his time at UCF.
With either option, it’s very likely that this offense would lean in favor of a slower-paced running offense that allows time to keep moving and possessions to come at a premium.
Another indication that the Monarchs may lean on a less explosive offense is Rahne’s offseason emphasis on the tight end position. During his two seasons with Penn State, the offense utilized the TE as the second-leading receiver.
However, there’s reason to question the success of the offense with their current offensive line. The Monarchs return two starters from their 2019 team. They also will be starting two transfers and a former walk-on on their offensive line unit.
If their line resembles anything close to the 2019 unit that allowed Havoc on 25.6% of plays, then this offense will have trouble consistently moving the ball.
In the preseason SP+ rankings, Old Dominion checks in as the 12th-worst defense in the country.
There’s plenty of reason for this low ranking.
The defense allowed 29.8 points per game in 2019, a Success Rate of 42.7%, and 3.8 points per opportunity, but it generated Havoc on 22% of plays.
During his pre-game press conference, Rahne emphasized the team’s focus on slowing down the Wake Forest rushing attack. Linebacker Jordan Young, who has 246 career tackles, is expected to be the centerpiece of that game plan.
Along the defensive line, players have reportedly practiced well, but only defensive end Marcus Haynes has played for ODU. Three freshmen could potentially be in line to start.
Dave Clawson enter his eighth season as the head coach of the Demon Deacons. After a streak of four straight years with at least seven wins, they managed only a 4-5 record last season, including a loss to Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Even in a down season, Clawson’s team proved it wouldn’t beat itself. It had a +10 turnover margin which ranked eighth, nationally.
The Deacons return 86% of their offensive production and 75% of their defensive production.
Demon Deacons Offense
As has come to be expected, Wake Forest played at a fast pace in 2020. It averaged 21.8 seconds per play, which ranked fourth.
Sam Hartman returns for his second consecutive season as the starting QB. He completed 58.1% of his passes and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. If 2020 is the expectation, Hartman is unlikely to contribute as a runner, as he failed to rush for positive yardage for the year, although he did score twice.
The WR corps took a hit with the season-ending injury to Donavon Greene, but they’ll be buoyed by returning leader Jaquarii Roberson. Roberson accounted for a 36.5% share of the team passing yards and eight of the team’s 14 passing scores.
With Kenneth Walker transferring to Michigan State, the bulk of the running game falls on the shoulders of Christian Beal-Smith. Beal-Smith has averaged 4.9 yards per carry over his career but has contributed less than 0.5 receptions per game.
Wake Forest had a Rushing Success Rate of 41%, which ranked 92nd nationally. But with the team returning four starters, improvement is expected.
Demon Deacons Defense
In 2020, this defense allowed a Success Rate of 46.7%. Somewhat more concerning is that it allowed 4.2 points per opportunity.
The strength of this defense in 2020 was the defensive line limiting opponent Line Yards and stuffing rush attempts. Additionally, it was above average in generating Havoc.
The defensive line must replace Carlos “Boogie” Basham, who became a second-round NFL Draft pick, but it returns three players who contributed along the front. While camp reports suggest that the team will be able to replace Basham, they also suggested a lessened ability to create Havoc in the backfield.
The secondary appears to be a concern. The 2020 team interception leader, Nick Anderson, is expected to contribute this season but is currently dealing with an injury that kept him off of the depth chart for the opener.
But both of the two starting cornerbacks, Ja’Sir Taylor and Caelen Carson, played nearly all of the team’s games last season. However, the two starting safeties combined for just three game appearances.
Old Dominion vs. Wake Forest Betting Pick
According to our PRO Report, both sharp and big money wagers have come in on Wake Forest to cover the 31.5-point spread. Fifty-two percent of bets and 76% of the money has come in on the Demon Deacons. However, it’s the total that stands out here.
At 64, there’s value on the under. Wake Forest will keep an efficient pace, but Old Dominion’s running focus should limit possessions. SP+ projects this total at 52, and that’s in line with my analysis.
Pick: Under 64 (Play to 61.5)
9 p.m. ET
Michigan State didn’t win often in Mel Tucker’s first season (2-5), but when the Spartans did, they sure did made count with a win in the Big House over Michigan and an upset of then-No. 8 Northwestern.
Outside of maybe Indiana, Northwestern was the biggest surprise in the Big Ten in 2020, reaching its second Big Ten Championship game in three years and putting up a decent fight against Ohio State.
Both programs underwent major roster overhauls in the offseason, with Sparty busy dipping into the transfer portal while the Wildcats have a litany of holes that need replacing after graduation and the NFL Draft.
This game should serve as an excellent litmus test for both teams to gauge where each will stand this season, but who can start out the new year on the right foot?
The one thing Tucker has made abundantly clear in his short time in East Lansing is that he wants his player to buy into a certain culture. If they’re not invested, get out.
Since November, the Spartans lost 27 players to the transfer portal, while welcoming 19 transfers of their own to go with 14 scholarship freshmen.
With 33 new players in tow, this team will look completely different from 2020 and should hopefully cut down some of the wild inconsistencies from last season that made them such a bad candidate to wager on (2-5 ATS).
Despite such an influx of new faces, Michigan State still brings back an Offensive TARP of 77%, thanks largely in part to the experience the Spartans are inheriting at the quarterback and running back position from the transfer portal.
Tucker has kept quiet on who will start at quarterback, but Michigan State brought in sixth-year player Anthony Russo from Temple to compete with Payton Thorne — who started only the final game last season against Penn State — to compete for the job.
Russo likely has the leg up to start at Northwestern based on his body of work over 26 career starts and nearly 6,300 passing yards, but the difference between him and Thorne is negligible.
Whomever offensive coordinator Jay Johnson ends up starting, the Spartans should see moderate improvement at the position over the turnover-prone Rocky Lombardi of last season who has since transferred to Northern Illinois.
The running back position for Michigan State will see the biggest jump in talent and production this season. Wake Forest transfer, Kenneth Walker III, averaged 5.3 yards a carry on 217 attempts last year, and his 13 rushing touchdowns were 13 more than the entire Michigan State running back room.
He’s a welcome addition to a rushing attack that ranked 126th in Rushing Success last season and didn’t have a single player rush for at least four yards a carry.
While Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave will receive all the rightful love for being the best pass-catching tandem in the Big Ten, Jalen Nailor and Jayden Reed aren’t all that far behind.
Nailor and Reed were sixth and 13th in the conference in receiving yards per game, respectively, and when you consider the play of Lombardi last season, that’s a fairly significant milestone.
The offensive line will also be improved, as all 35 starts from 2020 return as well as the addition of Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst.
The transition on defense will be a little shakier. The defensive TARP stands at 64%, and the Spartans are tasked with replacing linebacker Antjuan Simmons’ production and leadership.
The strength of this unit will be on the defensive line where defensive tackle Jalen Hunt has the potential to be one of the more prominent breakout players in the conference this season.
With the experience at the ends from Jacub Pansiuk and Drew Beesley, Michigan State stands to improve upon its 29th-ranked Defensive Rushing Success metric from 2020, although there’s a lot to be desired from this group in terms of pass rush.
The secondary could also be an area of concern. At one point this offseason, Michigan State was down to one scholarship cornerback, but the addition of three Power Five transfers as the position will help. There are worse teams to face than Northwestern while the group works on chemistry.
Northwestern put a real hole in the argument that winning teams need five-star recruits as the Wildcats won their division while fielding one of the best defenses in program history.
Pat Fitzgerald will have his hands full this season in the midst of a small rebuild as Northwestern’s win total sits at 6.5 in a 12-game season, despite going 7-2 a year ago.
Other than Alabama, no offense was decimated more by departures this offseason than the Wildcats who return an offensive TARP of just 28%. For some reason, I think the Tide will be slightly more adept at replacing the lost talent.
Northwestern had a quarterback battle of its own this offseason, but unlike Tucker, Fitzgerald showed his hand in naming former Clemson signal-caller Hunter Johnson the starter over South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski.
Johnson was the top-rated pocket passer in the class of 2017 before transferring to Northwestern in 2018, but he’s only thrown 108 passes in two eligible seasons, and the last time we saw him start for five games in 2019, he threw one touchdown to four interceptions.
Northwestern and second-year play-caller Mike Bajakian loved to run the ball last season, something they did at over a 58% clip despite an inefficient ground game (114th in Rushing Success), but the Wildcats took a big hit in losing running back Cam Porter for this season during the offseason.
The Wildcats will now turn to Evan Hull and Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair at the position instead.
The offensive line will be an area of strength with tackle Peter Skoronski being one of the best in the nation. T
he receiving corps returns 2020 opt-out JJ Jefferson and Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr., but overall, this unit should regress in 2021.
There’s no replicating a 2020 defense that finished first in nearly every defensive FEI metric and returns just 50% of Defensive TARP, not to mention losing 13-year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
In terms of continuity, Northwestern’s biggest area of strength will be among the defensive line with Adetomiwa Adebawore and 2020 opt-out Samdup Miller leading the way. Miller led the team in tackles and sacks in 2019, so that should give the defense a boost in Sack Rate and Rushing Success, which were mediocre at best last year.
The linebackers, however, take a big hit with the departures of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Cornerback Greg Newsome II was also one of the best in the business.
Brandon Joseph and his Big Ten-leading six interceptions return to what was one of the best secondaries in the nation — one that ranked fifth in Passing Success.
Michigan State vs. Northwestern Betting Pick
As mentioned earlier, this game is going to be very telling about what type of teams Michigan State and Northwestern will be in 2021.
My initial instinct was to look at the total (45). The Wildcats and Spartans were in the bottom of the conference last season, averaging 24.7 and 18.0 points per game, respectively, but there’s too much personnel turnover among the offenses to hint at any sort of consistency to that from 2020.
The better play here is the moneyline. This game on a neutral field would essentially be a pick’em, and while Friday’s contest takes place at Ryan Field, Michigan State is 6-1 straight up in its last seven trips there.
Although Michigan State’s final record may not show it with a trip to Miami and the unforgiving Big Ten East, I’m high on the Spartans to take a significant step in the right direction under Mel Tucker. I’m particularly optimistic on offense with a quarterback who doesn’t continually shoot the team in the foot with turnovers.
Northwestern’s defense won’t be nearly as good this season, and the offense is a work in progress, especially in Week 1 with so many moving parts.
For that reason, I’m confident enough to not even need the points with Michigan State, as I see the Spartans beating Northwestern for a third straight year by close to a touchdown.
Pick: Michigan State ML (+135)
9 p.m. ET
A classic big brother vs. little brother matchup looms in Week 1 as Colorado faces in-state FCS opponent Northern Colorado.
Northern Colorado moved on from head coach Earnest Collins Jr. after posting a 28-72 record over nine seasons. They replace him with former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who was previously coaching at the high-school level.
He brings his son, Dylan, along with him, as he transfers in from Michigan after being ranked the No. 6 QB recruit in the nation.
While being projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Sky Conference, the Bears have nothing to lose entering this game.
The Buffaloes were a popular pick to finish last in the conference last year before Karl Dorrell surprised everyone starting the season 4-0. They came back to earth in the final two games of the season, when they were blown out by a combined 49 points against Utah and Texas.
They return 17 starters on both sides of the ball and should maintain their reputation as one of the better rushing teams this season.
We’re in store for a big Colorado victory as it’s favored by more than five touchdowns.
There seems to be a resurgence in the Northern Colorado football program after the signing of McCaffrey as head coach. The Bears’ roster will look much different than it did the last time they took the field.
McCaffrey has brought in a group of FBS transfers to fill holes on both the offense and defense, highlighted by his son at quarterback. They also return three former Buffaloes on the defensive side of the ball who will surely be fired up to face their old team.
The Bears are projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Sky. Staying competitive would be considered a win for Northern Colorado in this matchup.
This is a completely different offense than what we saw in 2019. McCaffrey has mentioned that the Bears have been practicing the spread offense and a zone-read scheme during the offseason.
After averaging just 20 points per game in 2019, McCaffrey brought in some weapons for his son. Among them is senior running back Tru Wilson, who was a fellow Michigan man with McCaffrey in 2019.
A new set of pass-catchers fill the roster for the Bears such as 6-foot-5 tight end Robert Gillum, who transfers from Illinois state where he started 15 games in 2019. Wide receiver Dylan Thomas comes in from TCU, Kassidy Woods from Washington State, and Jonah Morris from Akron.
The last time the defense took the field in 2019 it was all-around bad. They allowed opponents to score 37.8 points per game. Opposing teams averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt and 5.8 yards per rush attempt.
It’s no secret that the defense is a point of emphasis if the program wants to take the next step forward. The Bears are returning a group of upperclassmen with transfers such as linebackers RJ Potts from Cincinnati and Xander Gagnon from Duke among several others.
Facing a big, experienced offensive line like Colorado is throwing this new-look defense straight into the fire Week 1.
Expectations are high in Boulder coming off a 4-2 season, but it begs the question if this team is for real.
Colorado outscored UCLA in a track meet, 48-42, and barely survived Stanford. The Buffs then beat San Diego State and Arizona, which was to be expected. But the first time they were really tested, the wheels completely fell off. Texas and Utah combined for 1,070 yards and 93 points against Colorado to finish the season.
The Buffs ended the season on a downward trend and lost All-Pac-12 quarterback Sam Noyer, who transferred to Oregon State.
Brendon Lewis gets the nod as the starting quarterback. The second-year freshman dressed for every game last season but only saw action in the Alamo Bowl against Texas. He helped spark the offense in that game and showed off his legs with a 44-yard touchdown run.
Lewis will have the luxury of a veteran receiving corps along with a dominant rushing attack.
Colorado will have a two-headed monster at the running back position between Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot. Broussard led the Pac-12 last season in rushing yards with 895, while Fontenot missed last season with a hip injury.
Both will be running behind a dominant offensive line that returns four starters, along with a transfer from Ohio State and Iowa.
Dorrell leaned on the running game, as the Buffs averaged the eighth-most rush attempts per game at 46 while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
The Colorado defense was suspect at best last season, allowing four of its opponents to score 32 points or more.
The run defense ranked 114th in the country, allowing an average of 5.4 yards per carry. The Buffaloes were solid against the pass, holding opposing quarterbacks to just 6.6 yards per pass attempt.
They return nine starters and thrived on third downs, allowing opponents to convert on just 31.8% of attempts.
They have a strong linebacking group that is deep. Nate Landman returns after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and is the captain on this defense. Alongside him is Carson Wells who excelled last season with 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
The Buffs will outmatch the Bears physically. They will have no film to study and will be playing an offense that has been practicing the spread for nearly two years.
Northern Colorado vs. Colorado Betting Pick
Colorado is going to be able to run all over Northern Colorado in this game. It averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and ranked 22nd in the nation in rushing yards per game going against Pac-12 competition.
Now, the Buffs face off against a defense that allowed 5.8 yards per carry and nearly 250 rushing yards per game against FCS competition. They won’t have any answer for stopping the rushing attack.
Lewis will show off both his arms and legs in his debut as the Buffs’ starting quarterback.
It won’t be surprising to see Northern Colorado put a few touchdowns on the board with their spread offense and slew of incoming transfers.
I’m staying away from the spread in this game, as it should get out of hand in the first half. Colorado will name the score against a putrid rush defense, and we should see the backups in by halftime.
That’s why I’m looking at the first half over of 31.5.
Pick: 1H Over 31.5 (Play to 33.5).
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