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College Football Best Bets: Week 1 (2021)

by September 2, 2021
Chris Olave

After a small slate of college football games whetted our appetites last weekend, the 2021 season kicks into high gear starting Thursday night and lasting throughout Labor Day Weekend. While five ranked vs. ranked games headline the slate, there are several other compelling games to watch.

While the first week of any season comes with a lot of uncertainty, that uncertainty is ratcheted up a bunch this year. New rules to the transfer portal and COVID-19 opt-outs last year make for many interesting caveats and storylines at the country’s top programs.

Two games we are wagering on this week feature teams with quarterbacks that have not thrown a pass for their respective schools. However, we still see value in these lines, even if it means we have to get creative with an occasional first-half total.

Here are my top four plays for Week 1 in college football.

Best Bets for Week 1: College Football

(Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
Last Season: 35-22 (+9.5 units)
YTD: 1-1

Ohio State at Minnesota: Over/Under 62.5

(game played 9/2)

At first glance, this total seems like a high number for a season opener. However, each team ranked in the top five of the Big Ten in scoring last year and brings back a number of talented players, specifically on the offensive side of the football and in the skill positions.

Many will be quick to jump on the under, considering the inexperience of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud’s inexperience. The redshirt freshman is the first freshman to start a season opener for the Buckeyes since J.T. Barrett in 2014. He has yet to attempt a pass in college but has one of the sport’s best play callers on his sideline in head coach Ryan Day. In addition, Stroud has a wealth of options, with the two-headed monster of Master Teague III and Treveyon Henderson at running back. In addition, Stroud has without question the best tandem of wide receivers in the country in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who each had over 720 yards receiving in 15 combined games last year. And if there is anyone worried about Stroud, one should know that the physically gifted quarterback was named the 2019 Elite MVP over highly touted players like Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

Minnesota also returns firepower on offense, most notably in running back Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 153.7 rushing yards per game last season led all Power 5 schools. Look for the Golden Gophers to use their massive offensive line to wear down Ohio State’s defensive front as the game goes on. This approach might lead to lengthy drives and longer time of possession, but at least we can be confident that Minnesota will do their part in the scoring.

The Golden Gophers have lost consecutive games against the Buckeyes. So while the -14 spread is tempting, we prefer to take any backdoor covering out of the equation and opt for the over. 11 of Ohio State’s last 12 road games against non-AP-ranked teams have gone over the predicted total, and we like that to happen again in this game.

PICK: OVER 62.5 (-110)

UTSA at Illinois (-6)

Compared to the rest of our selections over the long weekend, this game, by far, is the most low-profile. However, if it produces a winner, the game’s magnitude is irrelevant, and we like the UTSA Roadrunners to be competitive.

UTSA finished second in the C-USA West division last year after a 5-2 conference record and a 7-5 record overall. They shocked most people with their successful season after being picked to finish last in their division in the preseason media poll. The Roadrunners lost one-score games to two ranked opponents (BYU, Louisiana) and finished the regular season with three consecutive wins by an average of 22 PPG before a tough loss in the bowl game.

While the Roadrunners will not sneak up on anyone this year, they have the benefit of a week’s worth of tape to scout the new-look Fighting Illini under head coach Bret Bielema. While one should take no credit away from their season-opening win against Nebraska, the Illini were aided by numerous Nebraska special teams blunders (one that resulted in a safety) and a scoop-and-score defensive touchdown right before the first half ended. In addition, Cornhuskers quarterback missed several wide-open receivers, especially in the red zone, which could have made the game’s result entirely different.

Illinois should again be forced to use backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski after starting quarterback Brandon Peters is doubtful after leaving last week’s game with an injured non-throwing shoulder. Bielema’s game plan was very vanilla with Sitkowski at quarterback, as he attempted 15 passes to 48 runs. Illinois was outgained by 66 yards in last week’s win, and look for an underrated UTSA team to make this game closer than the predicted spread and possibly pull an outright upset.

PICK: UTSA +6 (-110)

Georgia vs. Clemson: Over/Under 51.5

The matchup between the Georgia Bulldogs and Clemson Tigers is the first season-opening matchup of top-five teams since 2017. Both have national title aspirations, and expectations are especially high in Athens as the Bulldogs feel they have one of the more talented quarterbacks they have had in quite some time. The issue is that J.T. Daniels will be without a number of key weapons and is facing a Clemson defense that may be Dabo Swinney’s best.

Daniels had just four games to get acclimated to coach Kirby Smart’s system. As a result, while Georgia’s offense could be a well-oiled machine by season’s end, it will likely take them some time to gel. The Bulldogs will be without tight end Darnell Washington and wide receivers Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens. Pickens’ loss will be felt the most, as he is a dynamic receiver who finished one yard shy of the team lead last year despite playing in just eight games.

Clemson’s defense waited all off-season to get the bad taste of the 49 points that Ohio State’s offense put on them in the offseason. They have an impressive blend of youth and grizzled leadership, with ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Bresee combining with the experience of linebacker James Skalski. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei shined when given his chance last year, especially in his 439-yard passing effort at Notre Dame. However, Travis Etienne is gone, as are wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Thus, there should be some growing pains early in the season, especially in this opener against a stout Bulldogs defense.

Each of Georgia’s last five season openers has gone under the projected total, and we like another defensive struggle to break out in this marquee matchup.

PICK: UNDER 51.5 (-110)

Notre Dame at Florida State: First Half Over/Under 27.5

(game played 9/5)

Something about playing in Florida brings out a sluggishness in Notre Dame, as each of their last five games played in the state has gone under the predicted total. While there are several unknowns throughout the country, they are significantly highlighted in this game as Jack Coan and (possibly) McKenzie Milton take their first snaps at quarterback for the Fighting Irish and Seminoles.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly tabbed Coan as his starting quarterback because of his consistency and leadership ability. However, from Coan’s days at Wisconsin, he has been known more as a dink-and-dunk passer rather than one who consistently lights it up downfield.

It will be interesting to see how conservative the Seminoles are with Milton’s running ability on the other sideline if he is named the starter, considering he has not played in two years after suffering a gruesome knee dislocation and nerve damage while quarterback at UCF.

Notre Dame will likely rely heavily on its running game with dynamic back Kyren Williams. Williams rushed for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, and it would not be a shock to see him handle 20+ carries to take the hostile crowd in Tallahassee out of the game.

We prefer the first half under to the full-game under because Florida’s heat and humidity on a Sunday night might wear down the defenders late in the game. Four touchdowns need to be scored in order to beat us, and we do not see that happening this early in the game.

PICK: First Half UNDER 27.5 (-115)

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Mike Spector is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeSpector01.

College Football, Picks