The 2011 college football season starts Thursday night and sports books in Las Vegas have been waiting for bettors to return for quite some time.
Professional sports handicappers have spent months reading up on teams across the country and are ready to fire away through the 2012 BCS Championship Game in New Orleans on January 9, 2012.
My job is to educate the Bleacher Report community in all things college football from a betting perspective.
Let's take a closer look at some of Week 1's biggest matchups featuring teams listed in the initial AP Top 25 poll.
The UNLV Rebels will be entering their 44th year of football in the desert and will travel to face the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium Thursday night on ESPN.
It’s an exciting contest for a Rebels’ program that will be appearing on ESPN for the first time since the 2004 season opener at Tennessee. UNLV also has a winning 8-4 record when playing on Thursdays.
Wisconsin leads the all-time series 7-2 and tallied a season opening 41-21 win in Las Vegas, but failed to cover the spread as 20.5 point road favorites. In fact, the Badgers have dropped the last four meetings since 2003 against-the-spread.
Badgers’ fans will likely see the team record its 29th-straight regular-season win over non-conference opponents. Head coach Bret Bielema has never lost such a game in 20 tries.
Quarterback Russell Wilson—a transfer from NC State—takes over under center for the departed Scott Tolzien. Wilson comes in with a 19-17 career record in the collegiate ranks.
Bettors may expect the Badgers’ offense to take awhile to get acclimated with Wilson at quarterback, but the team boasts a tremendous rushing attack with running backs Montee Ball and James White.
UNLV’s 0-3 ATS mark as underdogs of 31 or more points leaves a lot to be desired.
Pick: Wisconsin Badgers -35
The Mississippi State Bulldogs finished off the 2010 season with a 9-4 record and now begin a ranked year for the first time since 2001.
Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen enters his third year in Starksville and knows that his team’s success relies heavily on turnovers. In last year’s nine wins, Mississippi State turned the ball over just nine times versus 12 miscues in four defeats.
Memphis trails the all-time series, 33-11, dropping a 49-7 road game last year. The Tigers’ defense allowed 569 yards in that contest and scored their only touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
As written in a previous article, three schools—Texas, USC, Wisconsin—laid more than 20 points on the road last year in Week 1 and all failed to cover the number.
Pick: Memphis Tigers +28
The TCU Horned Frogs are definitely not afraid to start the 2011 campaign on the road and come in with the nation’s longest winning streak away from home at 11 games.
Head coach Gary Patterson has also scheduled a season opening contest on the road for the ninth time in his 11 years on campus.
The Horned Frogs will be playing their season opener against the Baylor Bears for the third time in the last six seasons—including a 45-10 home win as 21-point favorites in 2010.
Baylor is coming off a solid 7-6 overall record, 4-4 mark in the Big 12 Conference and will be searching for its first win over TCU under current head coach Art Briles. The Bears have been outscored in those contests by a 89-17 margin.
As written in a previous article, one of the safest eight bets this week is to watch both defenses limit the other opponent.
Pick: Under 56
Professional handicappers can only help but laugh at the previous meeting between these two schools, as the Ohio State Buckeyes pulled out a 20-2 home win over the Akron Zips.
The Buckeyes failed to cover the 27-point spread and the game went well below the posted total of 47.
A lot has changed since that meeting in 2007, including a coaching change in Columbus with Luke Fickell taking over for the departed Jim Tressel.
Bettors will find that the Buckeyes are 2-0 ATS as a favorite of 31 or more points the last two years, while the Zips have tallied a money-making 9-4 ATS mark as a road underdog of more than three touchdowns.
Let’s hope that recent trends hold out.
Pick: Under 48
Both schools have chose their starting quarterbacks during preseason camp and both will be on display Saturday. Miami has decided to go with Zac Dysert under center, who started the first 10 games last year before going down with a spleen injury.
“We’ve decided that Zac Dysert is going to be our starter at quarterback,” offensive coordinator John Klacik commented on MURedHawks.com. “Zac’s really having a good camp, but so is Austin Boucher. We’re ready to go with both of them.”
Missouri begins life after NFL draft pick Blaine Gabbert with dual-threat quarterback James Franklin, a player who has been compared to former Tigers’ star Brad Smith.
The Tigers return nine of their starters offensive from a unit that ranked 35th in the country in total offense—including four offensive linemen.
Last year’s result was a 51-13 home blowout by the Tigers as 20-point favorites. The line opened at 20.5 and has been bet down to its current place.
Bettors will likely play the underdog due to Missouri’s 1-5 ATS record at home versus an opponent playing with revenge. The team’s focus is also likely pointed squarely ahead at a Week 2 meeting in Tempe, AZ., against the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Pick: Miami OH RedHawks +17
Utah State nearly shocked the world in dropping a 31-24 road contest to the Oklahoma Sooners as 34-point road underdogs last year, opening up the Gary Anderson era with plenty of excitement.
The Aggies finished the year with a 4-8 record and will now begin life without quarterback Diondre Borel. It will likely be a run-oriented offense in Logan, UT., for most of the 2011 campaign.
Auburn captured the national title a season ago and now enters a season featuring just 11 seniors with playing experience on the roster.
The Tigers are fortunate to be opening the 2011 campaign at Jordan-Hare Stadium—a venue that the school has posted 11 straight winning years in. The program has tallied an impressive 65-15 home record since the 2000 season.
All eyes will be on Barrett Trotter who is taking over the reigns left by No. 1 NFL draft pick and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Cam Newton. He will be looking to win the school’s fourth-straight game with a new signal-caller making his first career start.
Bettors will likely jump all-in on the Aggies due to Anderson’s 7-1 ATS record as a double-digit underdog.
Pick: Utah State Aggies +22
The Alabama Crimson Tide followed up its 2009 national title campaign with a 10-3 overall record and 5-3 mark in SEC play.
Fans in Tuscaloosa are obviously expecting much bigger things this season and will likely roll into conference play with a perfect 3-0 record.
Head coach Nick Saban starts the year off in a fashion similar to last season, scheduling a cupcake before facing Penn State in Week 2.
The Crimson Tide walked away with a 48-3 win as 38.5-point home favorites over San Jose State before capturing a 24-3 victory over the Nittany Lions at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
18 returning starters for the Golden Flashes has our money being played on the high-priced underdog.
Pick: Kent State Golden Flashes +37
Underdogs that can force turnovers is a powerful angle when handicapping college football. The ULM Warhawks have forced at least one turnover in 21-of-24 games under the direction of defensive coordinator Troy Reffett.
Opening the season against a ranked opponent is nothing new for the Warhawks after facing four such opponents the previous three years—No. 14 Arkansas (2010), No. 2 Texas (2009) and No. 10 Auburn (2008).
ULM covered two of those three contests, but is still just 16-32 ATS in non-conference action.
Florida State comes into the 2011 campaign with lofty expectations under second-year head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel takes over the offense with the departure of NFL first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. He led the team to a 26-17 victory over South Carolina as two-point underdogs in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to end the year.
Pick: Over 52.5
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are normally a fade for me in terms of betting, but second-year head coach Brian Kelly has some talent in South Bend.
Professional handicappers have taken notice of the Irish's defense limiting its last four opponents to just 233.3 yards per game to end the season. The numbers were compiled against some talented teams, including Utah, USC and Miami.
South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels is talented, but he also likes to turn the ball over. He threw 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2010.
The Bulls failed to cover any of their three losses as underdogs last year and that streak will continue in the 2011 season opener.
Pick: Notre Dame Fighting Irish -10
Minnesota begins life under head coach Jerry Kill and will be looking to avenge last year’s 32-21 home loss to the USC Trojans as 10.5-point underdogs.
USC leads the series 5-1-1 and will be looking to win its 12th straight game against a Big Ten opponent. The Trojans have also won their last 13 openers and will begin the season with three consecutive home games.
Trojans second-year coach Lane Kiffin has a lot of talent at his disposal—especially on the offensive end with quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods.
Bettors will notice that the Trojans are 13-5 ATS versus Big Ten opponents, while the Gophers are 1-4 ATS versus current members of the newly established Pac-12 Conference.
Pick: USC Trojans -21
East Carolina set a school record with 60 offensive touchdowns during the 2010 season and will be looking to cover the spread in four of the last five meetings Saturday. The problem the Pirates run into is the last game in this series took place in 1999.
South Carolina has been picked by many to win the SEC and will be starting its seventh year under the direction of head coach Steve Spurrier.
The Gamecocks are going to need to score points in this particular contest and went ‘over’ the total in both situations last year when the total was 60 or above.
Pick: Over 62
The Oregon Ducks step on the football field for the first time since dropping a 22-19 contest to the Auburn Tigers as one-point favorites in the 2011 BCS Championship Game.
Ducks third-year head coach Chip Kelly has a big-time opponent to prepare for in this season opener, which may leave some fans on edge in Eugene due to dropping a 19-8 contest to Boise State in the 2009 opener.
LSU has been involved with plenty of offseason turmoil recently and will be playing without the services of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who has been suspended indefinitely due to a fight outside a bar near campus.
Fifth-year senior Jarrett Lee will be under center for the Tigers at Cowboys Stadium, but he hasn’t started a game since 2009.
The Tigers must try to pound the ball and slow down the game or risk being blown out by the Ducks. It’s important to note that the ‘under’ is 29-14-1 in their last 44 games as an underdog.
Pick: Under 55
The Boise State Broncos have tallied a 38-2 straight-up record the past three seasons under head coach Chris Petersen, causing lines makers to make the school a three-point neutral-field favorite over an SEC opponent.
Playing inside the bright lights of the Georgia Dome will not likely affect the team due to posting a 33-30 victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies as 1.5-point underdogs to open the 2010 campaign at FedEx Field.
Georgia is coming off its first losing season during the Mark Richt era and will be interested in starting fast out of the gate.
All-SEC candidate Aaron Murray finished his freshman season with 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He will be going heads up with Boise State thrower Kellen Moore—a Heisman Trophy finalist last year.
The ‘over’ is 5-0 in the Bulldogs last five neutral site games, while the Broncos have gone above the number in their last five September contests.
Pick: Over 51
Tulsa will be meeting Oklahoma for the 25th time and has posted a 7-16-1 all-time mark in the series. The Golden Hurricane have lost the last five meetings—including a 45-0 loss at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in 2009.
This year’s opener is the fifth consecutive season that Tulsa will be playing away from home—posting a 3-1 record in the previous four contests—including a 51-49 loss to East Carolina on a “Hail Mary” pass with time expired.
Expectations are sky high in Norman, OK as the Sooners begin their 13th year under head coach Bob Stoops. Oklahoma finished last year 12-2 straight-up, 8-6 against-the-spread.
Heisman Trophy candidate Landry Jones will direct a highly explosive offense from under center and he has a top-flight target in wide receiver Ryan Broyles.
In looking at the line history for this contest, sharp bettors hammered the Golden Hurricane after initially breaking the three-touchdown barrier as a favorite. The public has since jumped back on board and driven the line upwards.
Pick: Tulsa Golden Hurricane +25
Somebody needs to tell the bookmakers in Las Vegas that the SMU Mustangs are not afraid of knocking helmets with quality opponents. Head coach June Jones enters his fourth year in Dallas after leading his squad to spread victories over Texas Tech and TCU in 2010.
The Mustangs are 4-0 ATS in their last four games as an underdog of 10.5 points or more, while covering three of the last four meetings in this series.
Texas A&M closed the 2010 season in impressive fashion, but will be coming in with a 1-6 ATS record in season openers.
Aggies head coach Mike Sherman will also be facing his first legitimate threat in opening a season in College Station, as the team has played host to Arkansas State, New Mexico and Stephen Austin the previous three years.
Pick: SMU Mustangs +16