While Week 0 was a nice appetizer, I am excited to say the 2021 college football season officially begins this week.
Many people will have their eyes drawn to huge clashes like Georgia-Clemson, Alabama-Miami, Wisconsin-Penn State, and Indiana-Iowa, as those are the marquee matchups of this loaded Labor Day slate.
But in this article, we’re going to dig a little deeper and discuss the games that aren’t on the national radar. Below are my best bets for Week 1 that don’t involve any top-25 teams.
- Week 0 Record: 1-1
- 2021 season record: 1-1
Nevada Wolf Pack +3 at Cal Golden Bears, Over/Under 52.5
Let’s begin with a West Coast tilt that has some legitimate upset potential. The Nevada Wolf Pack are one of the favorites to win the Mountain West Conference this season, earning 19 first-place votes in the 2021 Mountain West preseason poll conducted by The Denver Post. They have enough to put a scare into the Golden Bears.
Nevada has a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Carson Strong. The junior QB threw for 2,858 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and only four interceptions in 2020 and could be a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Strong also has plenty of help. The Wolf Pack return 10 starters on offense, including their top three runners and top seven pass catchers. Receiver Romeo Doubs exceeded 1,000 yards last season and could become a household name. A Nevada offense that ranked 36th in offensive efficiency per FootballOutsiders should only improve with so much returning production.
Defensively, Nevada also returns 10 starters to a unit that ranked 68th in FootballOutsiders’ efficiency metric. The stop unit isn’t elite, but it should be good enough to keep a questionable Cal offense in check.
The Golden Bears struggled to put points on the board in 2020, averaging just 20.3 points per game and ranking 109th in FootballOutsiders’ offensive efficiency. The Bears averaged 1.72 points per drive and only 4.8 yards per play. They were especially poor moving the chains, as more than 40% of their drives ended without a first down (118th in the country).
Quarterback Chase Garbers and eight other starters return, but it’s tough to expect much of a leap from this offense.
What Cal lacks in offensive firepower they make up for with stingy defense, which seems to be head coach Justin Wilcox’s mantra. A year ago, Cal ranked 31st in defensive efficiency and allowed just 198 passing yards per game in four games against UCLA, Oregon State, Stanford, and Oregon. The Golden Bears bring back eight defensive starters but lose 1st-Team All-PAC 12 cornerback Camryn Bynum, who had one of the team’s two interceptions last season.
Cal’s defense is stingy, but this unit struggled to rush the passer and force turnovers last season. Unless Cal can somehow cause some disruption, Strong and the Wolf Pack should be able to move the ball down the field and could pull the outright upset.
Marshall Thundering Herd -2.5 at Navy Midshipmen, Over/Under 47
Let’s head to Annapolis, where Navy is coming off a disappointing 3-7 campaign. The bottom fell out for the Midshipmen last season, as they ranked 83rd in defensive efficiency and 110th in offensive efficiency.
Sophomore Xavier Arline will likely start under center and lead Navy’s triple-option attack. However, the Midshipmen return only five starters offensively, and only 19 career starts on the offensive line. That lack of experience could be costly against Marshall’s defensive line, which should be the strength of its defense. The Thundering Herd bring three defensive line starters back and four of the top six tacklers.
There’s another glaring mismatch on the other side of the ball. Navy returns nine starters on defense, but both losses are in the secondary. That could be problematic against Marshall. The Thundering Herd are implementing a more up-tempo, downfield passing attack under new head coach Charles Huff, an ex-Alabama assistant.
Marshall has an experienced quarterback in Grant Wells to run this new offense and returns three experienced starters on the offensive line and an exciting duo at wide receiver. I expect Marshall to take flight and for leading receivers Corey Gammage and Xavier Gaines to have their way with Navy’s secondary.
The question when betting on or against Navy is whether the opponent can shut down the triple option. I’m confident Marshall’s defensive line will handle it with a full summer to prepare for it.
Michigan State Spartans +3 at Northwestern Wildcats, Over/Under 46
Who’s up for a Friday night Big Ten rock fight? That’s exactly what I think we’re getting.
Northwestern was one of the best stories in college football last season, embarking on an unprecedented 7-2 season, another Big Ten West championship, and a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn.
But even in one of Northwestern’s best seasons in program history, the Wildcats still struggled to score. Northwestern’s offense ranked 76th in offensive efficiency, averaged 2.12 points per drive and only 4.82 yards per play. The Wildcats exceeded 30 points just twice in their first and final game of the season.
What’s worse is Northwestern isn’t returning much production on offense, with just four starters returning and none of their four leading pass catchers. The Wildcats are also going back to Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, who struggled in the 2019 opener before suffering a season-ending injury.
Defense is almost always a strength for Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald, and this unit should be solid again despite losing eight starters. Northwestern should be particularly tough in the trenches.
Meanwhile, Michigan State is still in the middle of a program rebuild in Mel Tucker’s second season. However, the Spartans return 16 starters, including seven on a defense that ranked 49th in efficiency and allowed only 5.5 yards per play.
Michigan State’s offense is still a work in progress. Nine starters return, including all five offensive linemen, but the Spartans need to find a solution at quarterback. Tucker has yet to announce a starter, but it will either be sophomore Payton Thorne or Temple transfer Anthony Russo. Michigan State’s skill players are also unproven, as last year’s leading rusher had only 219 yards, while MSU’s leading receiver had just 515 yards and four touchdowns.
Both of these teams are trying to find an offensive identity and have major questions at quarterback. While they both played at a fast pace last season (both averaged more than 70 plays per game), I’m expecting a classic Big Ten defensive struggle on Friday night.
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