The opening weekend of college football is finally here. After a chaotic 2020 season, there is a full slate of games, including a mix of important conference and out-of-conference matchups.
Under normal circumstances, the previous season would provide meaningful data points to inform a betting strategy in the opening weeks. However, I would caution against extrapolating too much from 2020. Between players opting out, rescheduled games, canceled spring practices, and uneven schedules, it is difficult to identify a clear picture of where each program stands. As a result, I suggest moderating your gambling risk in Week 1 until we have more concrete data. There’s nothing worse than emptying the bank account early in the season.
Before looking at specific games, here’s one fan question and answer for the week.
“How much value is there in picking big favorites in Weeks 1-3? I’ve seen some lines that look really enticing (USC -14 against SJSU, A&M -28.5 over Kent St.), and in previous years, I’ve seen favorites covering huge spreads pay well.” ~ CDC Hoo
This is a great question to explore at the beginning of the season when Power 5 schools often schedule games against soft competition. The answer hinges upon your definition of “big favorite.” Phil Steel recently compiled data on how often underdogs covered different sized spreads over the last 10 years. When the spread is really large (more than 49.5 points), underdogs cover about 65% of the time. This makes sense as it is very difficult to win a game by more than seven touchdowns, and teams that are ahead by that much usually take out their starters.
However, when spreads are more modest, it is close to an even proposition in his data. The best window for favorites is between 21.5 and 24 points, but that only translates to a 53.4%-win rate. Unfortunately, there is not meaningful value in selecting either modest favorites or underdogs. It is better to look at individual matchups and find situations where there is a clear disparity in talent. Alternatively, if you have a couple teams that you think are guaranteed to win, you could use a teaser to provide extra wiggle room. More on that in a moment.
Virginia Week 1 Forecast
- William & Mary +33.5 at UVA
- Over 49.5
(Note: Many sports books do not provide lines for games between FBS and FCS teams until a few hours before kickoff. These numbers are courtesy of the Action Network.)
Mike London will be in a familiar spot Saturday night: on the sidelines of Scott Stadium with an inferior team. He enters his third season as the head coach of William & Mary with a cumulative 6-9 record. It is difficult to predict what to expect from the Tribe after only playing in three games in a COVID shortened season. The quarterback situation is unsettled with dynamic dual-threat quarterback Hollis Mathis unlikely to play with an injured shoulder. Virginia has better and more experienced athletes at almost every position.
However, I do not expect William & Mary to be a complete pushover. Both lines return several starters from last season. Senior linebacker Trey Watkins, the Tribe’s leading tackler in 2019, anchors a formidable front seven. UVA also must be weary of Bronson Yoder, a shifty return specialist who led the nation in kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2019.
If Virginia avoids turnovers, it should win comfortably. However, I would not expect UVA to cover 33.5 points. The Cavaliers have only two wins of 34 or more points during Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure: a 35-point win against William & Mary in 2019 and last year’s epic cover against Abilene Christian. I predict a 44-14 Cavaliers victory.
Week 1 Best Selections
LSU -3 at UCLA
This line has shifted towards UCLA in recent days as professional bettors (also known as “sharps”) have invested in the Bruins. I am not as bullish on UCLA’s chances. Lost in the Bruins’ 44-10 Week 0 win over Hawaii was the pedestrian play of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He completed 10 of 20 passes for only 130 yards and missed several open receivers. The talented duo of Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet will test LSU’s run defense, a major weakness for the Tigers in 2020. However, LSU has the most returning starters of any team in the SEC and figures to be vastly improved defensively. On the other side of the ball, no one on UCLA can match up with wideout Kayshon Boutte. The Rose Bowl was poorly attended in Week 0. The stadium will be more crowded this weekend, mostly because of how well LSU fans travel.
Michigan State +3 at Northwestern
Northwestern defied expectations in 2020, reaching the Big 10 Championship Game on the way to a 7-2 season. The key was the Wildcats’ defense, which led the nation in points and passing yards allowed. However, this year Northwestern must replace seven defensive starters and retired coordinator Mike Hankwitz. There are questions on offense as well; Cam Porter, the Wildcats’ best running back in 2020, suffered a season-ending injury during fall practices. Michigan State has won the last two meetings, handing Northwestern its only loss of the regular season last year. Expect a low scoring and sloppy game. The Spartans may win the game outright but take the extra points for protection.
Western Michigan at Michigan Under 67
I won’t lie: betting on the under is not as fun as betting on the over. It is a lot easier to root for touchdowns than punts. In rare occasions, you can win an over bet in the third quarter and rest comfortably in the closing minutes of a game. When betting an under, you usually have to white-knuckle your way until the bitter end. Vegas knows about this fun disparity and will sometimes inflate the point totals of games to even out the risk. Just like eating vegetables, betting on the under is an important part of a balanced gambling diet. Michigan faces a pivotal year under Jim Harbaugh. After a terrible defensive performance in 2020, Harbaugh brought in former Baltimore Ravens coordinator Mike Macdonald to retool the defensive unit. Expect Michigan to be vastly improved defensively and not as explosive on offensive. I view this as a 42-21 Michigan win. That’s still plenty of scoring, but not enough to hit the over.
Northern Illinois +18 at Georgia Tech
The Huskies were the second youngest FBS team in 2020. This inexperience led to an anomalous 0-6 year for a program that routinely makes bowl games and terrifies Big Ten competition. This season, NIU returns nine starters on offense and ten on defense. The Huskies also add transfer quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who led Michigan State in passing last season. The Yellow Jackets will be a tough out in Geoff Collins’ third year as head coach, but I do not think they will win this game by more than two touchdowns.
Notre Dame -7.5 at Florida State
In my season preview, I faded the Irish because of their difficult schedule and roster churn. Doak Campbell Stadium is generally not a welcoming place, and there are reasons to believe that Florida State is an ascendant program. However, the Seminoles do not yet have the talent to match up against Notre Dame. Last season, the Irish competed in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Florida State lost by 42 points to rival Miami, 32 points to Louisville, and 24 points to Pittsburgh. The Seminoles had one of the worst run defenses in the ACC last season, allowing nearly 200 yards per game. Expect running back Kyren Williams to have a huge game as Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage. Vegas set this game at just over a touchdown to make you think twice about picking the obvious favorite. Don’t fall for it.
Specialty Bet of the Week
Each week, I’ll propose one bet that is outside the box. For the opening week, we are going to explore the art of the teaser.
In a teaser, you combine two or more bets together. You are then given points toward your preferred side to improve the odds of winning each bet; in a standard football bet, you are generally given between 6 and 7 points per game. Teasers do not have the same payout as a standard parlay because you are buying points. Standard teasers have similar payouts to individual bets against the spread. As with parlays, all your individual bets must cover or you lose.
One way to use a teaser is to find two teams that you are certain to win but have larger point spreads than you are comfortable with. You use your extra points to then to provide some wiggle room in case the game is closer than expected. This week, I am using a 7-point teaser on Alabama and Florida.
Alabama (-19.5 -> -12.5) vs. Miami
During his tenure at Alabama, Nick Saban is 10-0 in neutral site openers, winning by an average of 26.7 points per game. Six of those ten games were against ranked opponents. Miami quarterback D’Eriq King may be able to keep things interesting for a quarter or two, but Saban’s record speaks for itself.
Florida (-23.5 -> -16.5) vs. FAU
Though Florida is replacing the dynamic duo of Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts, the Gators will still have a dynamic playmaker under center in Emory Jones. FAU may hang around for a half in “The Swamp” with Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry, but Florida has too much talent on both sides of the ball.
Random Facts to Impress Your Fellow Tailgaters
The most high-profile game of the weekend takes place in Charlotte between No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Georgia. Both teams have eyes on the College Football Playoff and are legitimate National Championship contenders. Dabo Swinney is 11-1 in Clemson’s opening games with his only loss coming at the hands of Georgia in 2014. Strangely enough, Georgia’s last opening week loss was against Clemson the previous year.
While neither team would be doomed with an opening week loss, no two-loss team has ever made the College Football Playoff.
The SabreBetrics column is written by a Virginia graduate and long-time fan of The Sabre. The opinions expressed in this article are not directly associated with TheSabre.com and are intended for recreational use only.