5 Underdogs to Keep in Mind for NCAA Football's Opening Week

Mark CrystelContributor IIIAugust 28, 2011

5 Underdogs to Keep in Mind for NCAA Football's Opening Week

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    The opening week of college football is always an exciting time for those wager-savvy types as such fans have several weeks to analyze, prepare and predict which teams are going to do what.

    While teams like Boise and Missouri look to own the blueprint for holding up the flag for the favorites and covering the number, there are a few underdogs around the nation that are worth a look in Week 1.

    Last season, underdogs owned 21 of the FBS games in the opening week while favorites covered the spread in 17 of the games with a couple of ties.

    This season, it's anybody's guess whether the favorites will cover the numbers and beat the underdogs as a whole by the end of the weekend, but here's a few of those "dogs" to keep your eye on.

    Read on for the reasons why.

Baylor (+6.5) vs. TCU: Frogs Will Still Be Good, but Not as Dominant

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    "Ive never been more embarrassed in my life."

    Those were the words of Baylor Bears quarterback Robert Griffin after last season's 45-10 loss at TCU in a game that was over by halftime and ended up with the Bears being doubled up in total yardage.

    As was the case with virtually all of TCU's opponents over the prior three seasons, Baylor's offense managed less than 300 yards of offense in the game for the only time all season, despite no turnovers.

    While Baylor's defense won't be a strong as TCU's unit, the offense features a slew of talented receivers going up against a defense that loses six starters, although Tank Carder heads one of the nation's best linebacking units.

    But the major rebuilding will be on the Horned Frog's offensive line, which loses four starters and was often based around Andy Dalton's running ability. Even though star running back Ed Wesley returns, it's asking a lot of an offense to dominate in its first game on the road in the Big 12 behind just one returning offensive line starter and a new quarterback who saw no action in last season's game against Baylor.

    TCU coach Patterson knows about the revenge factor over in Waco.

    "The Baylor game, there is a true hatred, the way the game went last year," said Patterson.

    Will he be able to overcome losing half of his starters on a team that went about as high as it could go after last season's win over Wisconsin?

    Although the comparison may seem irrelavant on paper, the similarity has existed with Boise State. 

    Breaking in a new quarterback when Jarad Zabransky graduated after Boise's undefeated 2006 season that climaxed with a win over Oklahoma, just as TCU's season culminated beautifuly with a win over Wisconsin, the Broncos opened up the 2007 season as a three-point favorite at Washington but came out on the losing side of a 24-10 score.

    Last season's TCU team was arguably the best college football team in the country, and just as well, may have beaten any NCAAF team in a best-of-five series (66 percent of nearly 300 people who took my online poll in last season's article The 2011 Rose Bowl and the Case for TCU over Wisconsin agreed).

    This season's TCU team will still be very good, but much different. Especially on offense.

    A couple of losses are in the cards, including at Boise in November. Especially if the Broncos are undefeated. 

    Coming off a storybook season and having lost several key linemen, against a Baylor team out for revenge and a quarterback eager to make up for his most embarrassing game, this could be a close victory, or even one of those losses for TCU.

    Take Baylor to cover 6.5 points

Bowling Green (+8) at Idaho: Falcons Have Been Full of Opening Week Surprises

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    Perhaps Urban Meyer got the Bowling Green shock machine started.

    Coming off a two-win season in 2000, Meyer took over the coaching job at Bowling Green and started the 2001 season with a straight up victory over Missouri, on the road, as a 13-point underdog.

    He did it again to Missouri in 2002, then new coach Gregg Brandon opened the 2003 season with a win over Purdue as an 11-point underdog.

    It didn't stop there.

    After winning four games in 2006, the Falcons went into Minnesota as a 14-point underdog and came out with a victory in the opening week of 2007.

    They did it again in 2008, this time at Pittsburgh as a two-touchdown underdog once again, before disposing of the Sun Belt's best (Troy) in their 2009 debut.

    Even last season's opener was a good effort, a three-point loss at Troy as a 14-point underdog. 

    The Falcons went on to win just two games in 2010 and open the 2011 season at Idaho as more than a touchdown underdog.

    In a rematch of the 2009 Bowl game that ended with a final score of 43-42 with a pick-em spread, Bowling Green will try to return to form after playing last season with a freshman QB and a slew of youngsters over the entire roster.

     

    Turnovers were a big part of the reason for the two-win season, as the offense turned the ball away 31 times in 12 games.  On the positive, the defense registered 29 takeaways so the team was only (-2) for the year, but the point is they played in a lot of sloppy games.

    This season, nearly the entire roster is comprised of juniors or seniors and will be taking on an Idaho team that says goodbye to four-year starter Nathan Enderle at QB. The replacement, Brian Reader, has some experience and he is a senior, but is surrounded by an offense featuring just three other returning starters from last season.  

    Idaho has been no more than a three-point favorite the last five times it hs played a MAC team since 2006. Up to an eight-point favorite now, it's a fine time to take a look at the underdog.

    The key here is that it's a reasonably winnable game for the Falcons, who have been one of the most consistent small schools at pulling off season-opening surprises over the last decade.

    The home team should be favored here so spot the Falcons up to 6.5 points. But anything outside of a touchdown for this game could easily constitute a decent advantage to the underdog while the favorite must win by two scores to cover the spread. 

    Take Bowling Green to cover eight points

Colorado (+7) at Hawaii: Change of Venue Is Not Worth 20 Points

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    The father-son combo, and the five losing seasons that came with it, has departed in Boulder.

    Gone is coach Dan Hawkins, whose son was often the starting quarterback for the Buffaloes in recent years.

    In comes new coach Jon Embree with quarterback Tyler Hansen poised to be this season's starter. However, Colorado's offense did average about 10 more points per game last season with Hawkins at quarterback instead of Hansen. 

    Coming off a 5-7 season but a little better than their record indicated, the Buffaloes have nine starters back on the offense (seven on the defense) from a team that dominated Hawaii last season after falling behind 10-0. 

    Tyler Hansen started last season's game against Hawaii and had a fine performance, completing 19 of 26 passes for 200 yards and no interceptions. The Buffaloes dominated the time of possession, rushing the ball 51 times for 270 yards.

    Interestingly and despite Colorado's 31-13 win over Hawaii last season, the Buffaloes get demoted from a 13.5-point favorite all the way to a seven-point underdog! 

    The change of venue from Colorado to the Hawaiian islands is certainly worth something, but considering it's the opening game of the season and the Buffaloes will have time to prepare in lieu of being jet-lagged, a 20 point-swing seems a bit unreasonable for a team with 16 returning starters going up against Hawaii's nine returning starters.

    Senior quarterback Bryant Moniz and his 5,000+ passing yards return for Hawaii's offense, but he'll be working without five of last season's top six receivers. He'll also be lining up behind four new offensive lineman and won't have running back Alex Green (1199 rushing yards) in the backfield.

    Hawaii won nine FBS games last season, but it also led the nation in forced turnovers (38) and was (+16) in turnover margin.

    Many "experts" have picked Hawaii to finish first in the very weak WAC conference this season, but expect at least two losses in its three non-conference games and this could be one of them.

    Hawaii's recent teams have put up some good numbers against fellow conference foes, but when it comes to defeating quality non-conference teams, especially by more than a touchdown, since 2007, it has failed miserably except against lowly Washington State and UNLV.

    As long as the Buffaloes are all business instead of spending too much time soaking up the rays on the beaches of Honolulu, they are worth a look as this is a winnable game for their football team who is generously being spotted a touchdown by the odds makers.

    Take Colorado to cover seven points

North Texas (+14.5) at FIU: Sun Belt Favorites Take on New Look Mean Green

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    Like Colorado, North Texas University hired Todd Dodge, who brought in his son Riley Dodge at quarterback, to resurrect the football program.

    Like with Colorado, it didn't work.

    Todd Dodge was fired last season after the loss to Florida International, but the Mean Green played noticeably better in its final five games, winning just two but competitive in all five, including a 49-41 loss to Kansas State.

    In comes new coach Dan McCarney, whose 35 years of experience includes 2004 Big 12 coach of the year and a national title with Florida in 2008.

    Mike Canales, who returns as offensive coordinator after taking over for the fired Todd Dodge in mid-season, worked with McCarney in 2007 at South Florida. The Bulls started 6-0 that season and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP poll.

    To go along with a new $78 million stadium, 13 starters are back for North Texas, including explosive running back Lance Dunbar, who tallied 1553 yards last season and ran for 270 of those yards against Kansas State.

    The defense, however, will likely be a work in progress, which may not bode well against FIU's Wesley Carroll. The Mississippi State transfer has the explosive T.Y. Hilton back as his favorite target along with running back Dariet Perry (865 yards and 16 TDs) for what could be a high-scoring opening game.

    After going winless in 2006, FIU eventually got a victory in the final game of 2007 before winning five games in 2008.  After regressing to three wins in 2009, it finally achieved a bowl game last season and beat Toledo to finish with a winning record.

    However, it has never been favored by more than 10 points since joining the Sun Belt, and finds itself opening up the 2011 season as more than a two-touchdown favorite.

    Still a small team in size, North Texas won't be able to match up with elites like Alabama, who should beat it by at least four or five touchdowns later in September. 

    But with the new leadership and attitude McCarney has been known to install, the Mean Green should be competitive in most of its Sun Belt games, as it has lost only one of its last 10 conference games by more than 14 points.

    "People will stop laughing at North Texas, and one day start respecting North Texas," said McCarney.

    A valiant effort at Florida International would be a good start.

    Take North Texas to cover 14.5 points

UNLV (+35) at Wisconsin: It's a Mismatch, but Stranger Things Have Happened.

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    The UNLV-Wisconsin "rivalry" has been an interesting one (especially when the lights went out in 2002), with these teams playing each other for a few years in a row, then taking a short hiatus before playing each other once again for a home-and-home. 

    After barely covering 20.5 points last season in a 20-point loss, the Rebels are up to a 35-point underdog.

    How can you blame oddsmakers?

    UNLV has been one of the worst road teams in recent memory, going 3-32 SU and 5-23 ATS as a road underdog! 

    Omar Clayton has departed, leaving the QB spot open, but he never did much of anything anyway. It's a young team with just four starters back on the defense but last season was worse as the team was forced to play over a dozen true freshmen who will now be a year more experienced, although UNLV will still probably only win about two games total.

    As for the Badgers, their storybook season ended as I expected with a loss to last season's best team (TCU) and although their top RBs are back, a couple of key offensive linemen were drafted into the NFL along with QB Scott Tolzein. 

    Still, UNLV's defensive line will remain severely undersized in this matchup.

    Newcomer but proven and capable quarterback Russell Wilson has arrived in Wisconsin from North Carolina State, but don't automatically expect a blowout from the beginning as the new team might need some time to jell.  Don't underestimate how important the Badgers' former offensive linemen were for this team's success last season, and those voids must now be filled. 

    The Badgers were a 38-point favorite over San Jose last season, a team somewhat comparable to UNLV, and won by just 13 points at home. 

    Also remember the Badgers got by Arizona State by way of a missed extra point and needed a fake punt to beat Iowa. 

    Speaking of Arizona State, remember that UNLV, after winning two games each year from 2004-2007, actually shocked the Sun Devils in 2008, winning on the road in September as a 24-point underdog and catching the home team looking ahead to top-ranked Georgia. 

    I'm not suggesting an upset at Wisconsin by any stretch of the imagination, but merely pointing out that stranger things have happened. 

    Wisconsin started 0-5 ATS last season and finished 7-0, and a similar result ATS could be in the cards for this season regarding a slow start and strong finish. The Badgers should still be an elite team and might be good enough to win the conference with Ohio State's issues, but they are not the same as last season's team and could be surprised a few times, including a closer-than-expected game with Northern Illinois on Sept. 17th in Chicago in Dave Doeren's return to his old team.

    There are nine games slated for college football's opening week which feature point spreads of four touchdowns or more. 

    Of the nine, this one could be the best opportunity for the underdog, who is severely overdue for a road cover at 0-10 ATS in the last 10, with this being UNLV's third opportunity in that string to cover 35 points and that third consecutive time is usually the charm. 

    Take UNLV to cover 35 points