College football is around the corner, opening on Saturday with four contests as Week 0 is set to start trending. UCLA-Hawai’i and Nebraska-Illinois will highlight the card but there’s plenty of wagering that can still be done even after the weekend’s quartet is in the books.
We’ll talk about betting the Heisman Trophy, national title contenders, sleepers and conference champs down the road, but let’s open with a pessimistic approach, shall we?
Win totals are out for every league in the nation, from the SEC to Sun Belt to Independents. There’s a number for all 130 teams, and we’ll take a look at teams we like to surpass their win totals too, but there are a couple of teams among our fade choices that should surprise. The following is a conference-by-conference look at the one team in each league that you’re going to want to bet the ‘under’ on. For consistency’s sake, we’ll use FanDuel’s numbers.
SEC: Heupel’s First Season Won’t Yield Immediate Improvement
The Volunteers are on to yet another head coach and it seems like you have to go back to the Philip Fulmer/Peyton Manning era to see any level of success. Lane Kiffin lasted a season. Derek Dooley was a flop. Most recently, Jeremy Pruitt enjoyed one winning season in three years and Butch Jones failed at Tennessee before him. The Volunteers will now turn to Josh Heupel, who had success at UCF but inherits a mess in Knoxville where there are still expectations of winning immediately and reaching a bowl game despite coming off a 3-7 season. The Vols have a 6.5-win expectation on their heads this season. I spy four games they should definitely win and three swing games. With Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Virginia Tech import Hendon Hooker dueling to be Heupel’s first quarterback, there are likely to be continuity issues. Both top running backs, Ty Chandler and Eric Gray, transferred. WR Josh Palmer is in the NFL now. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks has to learn the league after spending years at Illinois and Penn State and the Vols lost three of their top six tacklers. This looks like a rebuild from scratch for Tennessee and at best, six wins looks like a ceiling. Games against Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia don’t appear winnable and it will be interesting to see how they fare at home in that Sept. 11 game against Pitt. Heupel’s seat will already start getting warm if the Vols fail to win that one. I see another long season coming in Knoxville.
Big Ten: Badgers May Win But Face Challenges Ahead
Wisconsin is favored to win the Big Ten West again but went just 4-3 last season. As a result, it’s an awfully tall task to expect the Badgers to top 9.5 wins with what would be their sixth season with double-digit victories in the last eight years. Last year’s offensive line produced the lowest rushing numbers since Paul Chryst’s first season back in 2015. Making matters worse, first-team All-Big Ten left tackle Cole Van Lanen was drafted by the Packers in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. Graham Mertz has yet to live up to billing despite being the highest-rated quarterback recruit in school history and recently struggled in a key scrimmage. The Badgers defense is typically solid but lacks star power outside of LB Jack Sanborn, so maybe the first three-game losing streak of the Chryst era suffered from last November into December shouldn’t be written off as a pandemic-related aberration. Wisconsin opens the season hosting Penn State and plays Notre Dame in Chicago on Sept. 25 in a game that will reunite it with ex-QB Jack Coan, so only its Sept. 11 home date with Eastern Michigan can be considered a guaranteed win. Beyond that, the Badgers still have to get through home dates with Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska. Considering it will be favored often at home, taking points against the Badgers could yield profits. Fading them getting to 10 wins is also the way to go.
Big 12: “Texas Is Back” Continues To Be Premature Exhilaration
The Steve Sarkisian era begins in Austin and could get off to a bumpy start. To see a win total of 7.5 placed on the Longhorns is something you should be licking your chops about. Sarkisian restored his reputation as an offensive guru at Alabama but had the benefit of pros everywhere you looked, including under center where Mac Jones was terrific at getting the ball out quickly. He’ll have an inexperienced QB regardless of who wins the competition between sophomore Casey Thompson and second-year freshman Hudson Card. Card sounds like he’s pulling ahead in the race and he threw just three passes as Sam Ehlinger’s understudy. Sarkisian went 46-35 in stops at Washington and USC from ’09-’15, so he doesn’t exactly have a sparkling record as a head coach. Leading tackler Juwan Mitchell transferred to Tennessee too, leaving DeMarvion Overshown to hold down the defense. The Longhorns open with the Ragin’ Cajuns before traveling to Arkansas out of the gate and visit TCU before a Red River Showdown against Oklahoma in which it will undoubtedly be an underdog. Texas also visits Baylor before traveling to Iowa State and closes the season visiting West Virginia and hosting Kansas State. The Longhorns will be expected to win both but neither will be easy. Tom Herman’s first team at Texas went 7-6 and that may be the ceiling for Sarkisian’s group too. Hook’em? How about we fade’em.
ACC: Florida State’s Road Back Remains Stuck In Traffic
It’s hard to imagine it’s been just five years since Florida State was wrapping up a fifth straight 10-win season under Jimbo Fisher, a run that included a 14-0 national title run in ’13 and a 13-1 finish the next season. Fast forward to this new decade and Mike Norvell’s first team at FSU being a disaster, which is why this season’s win total expectation has been set at 5.5 for a 12-game slate. The Seminoles finished 2-6 against FBS competition in 2020 and struggled to defeat the one FCS team on their slate in Jacksonville State, trailing at the half. The ‘Noles will be an underdog at home against Notre Dame to open the season on Sept. 5 and have to visit North Carolina and Clemson in addition to Florida in the regular-season finale. Other talented teams like N.C. State and Miami come through Tallahassee in November. The offensive line returns intact, but that may not be great news given their well-documented struggles blocking up front. That could end up resulting in a rough go of it for UCF transfer McKenzie Milton, who has made it back from a gruesome knee injury suffered years ago and looks to be the guy set to line up under center. FSU’s top four returning tacklers are back but the defense gave up 41 or more points in half of their FBS games last season. Even a .500 season would be a real achievement in 2021. It’s highly unlikely.
Pac-12: Cougs Look Like Prime Fade Material
A state mandate will require the previously reluctant Nick Rolovich to get a COVID vaccine and he’s said he’ll relent and adhere, so fading Washington State on the belief they might forfeit games is out the window. That still doesn’t mean backing the Cougs to finish with over 6.5 wins is a good bet. Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano perennially disappointed in the SEC while Jayden de Laura didn’t live up to the hype as a true freshman, making for a shaky QB situation. No one can deny RB Max Borghi is versatile and extremely productive but he has to stay healthy since he missed three of last season’s four games in 2020. A defense that gave up an average of 42 points per game in their three losses returns 10 starters but lacks a truly dynamic talent. Then there’s the schedule. USC and BYU will be tough home games and the road schedule is brutal given trips to Utah, Cal, Arizona State, Oregon and Washington. I don’t see Washington State reaching .500 even if they are able to avoid any COVID outbreaks, Borghi stays healthy and Guarantano or de Laura steps up under center. It’s just too tall a task.
American: Another Long Season Awaits Champa Bay’s Bulls
South Florida’s number has been set at 2.5 after last season’s disaster of a 1-8 season, so former Clemson OC Jeff Scott is expected to suffer through more growing pains. He only beat The Citadel in his first season in Tampa and may only pick up a victory against an FCS squad in Florida A&M (Sept. 18) in 2021. September opens with a road game at NC State where USF is an 18-point underdog and closes in Provo at BYU. In between, the Bulls host the Florida Gators but the host part should be in quotation marks because there will be loads of orange and blue in attendance at Raymond James Stadium and the SEC power will probably be favored by 20-plus. USF’s American Athletic Conference schedule features winnable games against Temple, ECU, and Tulane but those latter two will come on the road against teams that should make significant strides in ’21. The Bulls are counting on a bunch of transfers to upgrade a defense that gave up 39 or more points in six of last year’s eight losses. Veteran defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer had success at FAU and has been at Oklahoma State and Charlotte in the same capacity, but he’s got his work cut out for him in 2021. This schedule looks too tough to expect three wins out of and the AAC preseason media poll expects an 11th-place finish –dead last. USF will be home ‘dogs to Tulsa, Houston, and Cincinnati and will also be catching points in all of its road games, which means an Oct. 23 date against Temple is the only one it might be favored in.
MWC: Is Boise Set To Fall Off The Mountaintop?
Boise State is definitely going to be solid this season but when you combine a win total set at 8.5 with an extremely tough schedule that features visits to UCF and BYU in addition to a tough non-conference home game with Oklahoma State, there’s not a ton of room for error for the Broncos in their Mountain West slate. Boise is used to winning at least 10 games, having done so in 12 of the last 15 years dating back to the Chris Petersen era but First-year head coach Andy Avalos comes over to replace new Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin, so there will be an adjustment period. There’s a first-time FBS offensive coordinator as Andy Plough taking over the play-calling following a lot of success at the FCS level. Avalos played linebacker at Boise and was a defensive assistant in numerous capacities under Harsin so he knows the culture, but it’s unfair to expect him to win big immediately when you consider Boise even lost the Mountain West title game to San Jose State game last season. Too much can go wrong with the bar set this high given Boise’s reputation as the Mountain West’s juggernaut.
Indy: Irish Set to Take Step Backward
Notre Dame has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons, but the books have set the 2021 number at only 8.5. There’s a reason for that. Although the Fighting Irish will play 12 regular-season games and reach a bowl, the schedule looks brutal. They’ll meet Wisconsin in Chicago to close out September, return home to host AAC favorite Cincinnati and then head out to Blacksburg the following week to meet Virginia Tech. After a bye, they’ll host USC and UNC, which means elite QBs Kedon Slovis and Sam Howell will come through South Bend. Those games are all potential losses, and that’s not even factoring in the possibility of an upset against their other opponents. FSU, Toledo, Purdue, Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Stanford are all inferior on paper, but none of those teams are terrible. There simply are no easy wins. Then there’s the undeniable fact that new QB Jack Coan, a Wisconsin transfer, isn’t going to be as productive as Ian Book, whose 30 career wins are the most in the school’s storied history. 1,000-yard rusher KAI-ren Williams is back, but other key playmakers will have to be replaced. On the other side of the ball, highly respected Defensive coordinator Clark Lea took the Vanderbilt head coaching gig, so there will be a new scheme in place with ex-Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman taking over. He’s got a great reputation but won’t have a defense as talented as Lea had at his disposal with three of the top five tacklers gone.
Sun Belt: Butch Faces Rough Start in New Challenge
Arkansas State’s run of consecutive winning seasons ended at nine in 2020 but head coach Blake Anderson still was able to land a new gig at Utah State, taking QB Logan Bonner with him. Proven commodity Butch Jones, formerly of Tennessee, Cincinnati and Central Michigan is taking over a cupboard that isn’t bare despite last year’s 4-7 finish. Florida State transfer QB James Blackman is likely to take over at QB from incumbent Layne Hatcher but the defense is likely to struggle once again given the switch to a 4-2-5 and how tough that is to pick up. It doesn’t help matters that after a likely win over Central Arkansas, the Red Wolves have a grueling slate where they’ll host Memphis, play at Washington, at Tulsa and at Georgia Southern before returning home for games against Coastal Carolina and Louisiana. Jones will have to keep morale high to top the projected total of 4.5 wins with a strong finish and that’s going to be tough to do in his first season.
C-USA: Mean Green Going Through Lean Times
North Texas has dropped 14 of 22 games over the last two years after posting consecutive nine-win seasons behind all-time leading passer Mason Fine. Head coach Seth Littrell now has returnee Austin Aune and UNC transfer Jace Rudder battling to be the next Fine and get back over .500, but I don’t see it happening. The Mean Green’s number has been set at 4.5 but their schedule looks awfully tough. Non-conference games feature tough trips to SMU and Missouri. Talented Liberty is Coming through Denton, as are league C-USA standouts UAB, Marshall and UTSA. North Texas’ defense surrendered over 40 points in six of 10 games last season so improvements must be made on that side of the ball too.
MAC: Buffalo Soldiers On Without Leipold, Patterson
Buffalo lost the MAC title game but finished 6-1 and defeated Marshall in the Camellia Bowl last season. The Bulls lost Lance Leipold to Kansas in April when Les Miles was canned for inappropriate contract and now face learning a new system since Leipold lost most assistants with him except for new head coach Mo Linguist. Following his departure, a host of players hit the portal to explore new opportunities with the page being turned in Buffalo. There’s still talent left on the roster in LB James Patterson and QB Kyle Vantrease, but Patterson’s brother, Jaret, turned pro and is looking to make the Washington Football Team following a fantastic preseason. Kevin Marks Jr. is a talented back and will now inherit all the touches. Buffalo has gone 24-10 over the past three seasons and will take everyone’s best punch even though it is no longer equipped to take it. Games against Nebraska and Coastal Carolina will be tough to win and a lot of the other MAC schools have surpassed the Bulls and will set out to prove it, making the over on 7.5 wins a risky play given all the turnover.