College Football Week 1 Predictions: Picking Top 25 Games Against the Spread
It's officially Week 1 of handicapping season, which of course means the return of college football!
(Wait…I think I might have had the backward.)
But seriously, welcome back for another year of picks against the spread, where each week we attempt to pick winners for the games involving Top 25 college football teams.
Last year I subbed in for Adam Kramer, who left the column to care for his newborn, and managed not to spit on his grave. I started slow in October, but a hot streak at the end of the year (31-13 over the final three weeks) landed me at 59 percent for the season.
That is a percentage I can live with.
Everyone who picks games against the spread has a unique handicapping philosophy. Mine relies heavily on numbers, but all numbers require context. I'll explain to the best of my ability why I make each pick I make, and I welcome any comments or criticism.
Just remember: We are all on the same team here. The line is our only enemy.
No. 2 TCU at Minnesota
The Line: TCU (-14.5)
The first sign TCU was legit last season came in a 30-7 win over Minnesota. The Horned Frogs pasted Jerry Kill's team on both sides of the ball, announcing their arrival as Big 12 contenders.
But last year's game took place in Fort Worth. This one takes place in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers finished 5-1 at home last season, with their only loss coming by seven points against Ohio State. The only game they didn't cover was a one-point win over Purdue. They are 4-1 against the spread as home underdogs since 2013, which reflects how well they play against good teams.
I also like this matchup personnel-wise. Minnesota has a strong pair of cornerbacks (Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun) to hang with receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee, and on offense it has the running game to exploit TCU's weakness at linebacker.
I'm worried about the loss of David Cobb, a 1,600-yard rusher, and the diminished home-field advantage of playing a warm-weather game in Minneapolis. The Gophers are at their best under conditions only locals find comfortable. I would not run to the counter to bet this.
But when in doubt, I'll gladly take the home dog.
The Pick: Minnesota (+14.5)
Washington at No. 23 Boise State
The Line: Boise State (-11.5)
Washington is one of the hardest teams in the country to peg. On paper it should take a big step back, but the phrase "Year 2 under Chris Petersen" sounds like an unwise things to bet against.
Petersen won't budge on announcing his starting quarterback, but Internet chatter makes it sound as if true freshman Jake Browning, who broke the national record for career touchdown passes at the high school level (229), has a strong chance of earning the nod. If he does, Washington would have a much higher ceiling but also a much lower floor. So is the case with true freshman.
Assuming Browning starts, this game might look like last year's Week 1 Louisville-Miami game, when talented freshman Brad Kaaya showed potential but mostly looked rattled against a strong defense in a hostile environment. Louisville won that game 31-13.
Petersen knows better than anyone how hard it is to win in Boise. He went 92-12 as the Broncos head coach before leaving for Washington last winter. Since 2006 (Petersen's first year at Boise), the Broncos are 55-2 on the blue turf. They've also covered 65 percent of their nonconference games in that span.
Here's betting that trend continues.
The Pick: Boise State (-11.5)
No. 21 Stanford at Northwestern
The Line: Stanford (-12.5)
I want to pick Stanford because I really like its offense, but I can't because I don't trust its defense.
I can't believe that's a sentence I just typed.
But seriously, take a look at Stanford's depth chart. Starting nose tackle Harrison Phillips is a 6'4", 278-pound sophomore, and the two players listed behind him, Solomon Thomas (6'3", 271 lbs) and Aziz Shittu (6'3", 279 lbs), are actually the starters at defensive end. That basically means Phillips has no backups.
Whether Northwestern is the right time to exploit this remains to be seen. Either way, this game should stay close. Last year the Wildcats beat Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, so it's not like they'll be scared of a ranked opponent. Their secondary is good enough to contain Kevin Hogan, and a running game led by sophomore Justin Jackson is good enough to flirt with 20 points.
As for Stanford, it typically struggles at the start of the year. It barely beat San Jose State in the 2012 season opener, and then lost its first road game at Washington. The following year, after beating San Jose State by 21, it only won by 14 at Army.
Again, I'll take the Big Ten home underdog.
The Pick: Northwestern (+12.5)
Louisville at No. 6 Auburn
The Line: Auburn (-10.5)
Auburn is my team this season. I wrote before spring camp that it should be the SEC favorite, and I haven't changed my mind in the interim. I think it will make, and could easily win, the College Football Playoff.
But I still think this is too many points.
Louisville has a viable offense and a defense that should once again be special. Sheldon Rankins, James Burgess, Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins—it's loaded. These guys feel like they belong on the field with anybody.
"I really believe this defense is going to be better this year," Burgess said at ACC media days, per Rick Bozich of WDRB.com. "I believe we're going to be No. 1 in the country."
According to Brian Fremeau's FEI projections, this game should stay within one score. His formula has Auburn winning 28-23, but it gives the Cardinals a 36.4 percent chance of pulling the upset and a 55.1 percent chance of staying within eight points.
The extra half point kicking the spread over 10—a key handicapping number—moves this pick toward lock status.
The Pick: Louisville (+10.5)
Virginia at No. 13 UCLA
The Line: UCLA (-19)
UCLA should have lost last year at Virginia. There's no way to sugarcoat it. The final score read "Bruins 28, Cavaliers 20," but Jim Mora's team needed so many breaks to get there. According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, it had a Win Expectancy of 17 percent.
That's the bad news. The good news is what Virginia loses. It's still strong in the secondary, but defensive end Eli Harold and linebackers Max Valles and Henry Coley are all in the NFL. Last year Virginia's pass rush made UCLA's offensive line look soft and confused.
This year should be the opposite.
Virginia averaged 30.6 points per game at home last season but only 19.2 on the road. It's unclear where the Cavs will find offense against a defense led by Myles Jack, Kenny Clark, Eddie Vanderdoes, Deon Hollins and a secondary that returns basically everyone.
All true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen—"The Rosen One"—needs to do is manage the game and make smart decisions. His teammates can take care of the rest. He might not light the box score on fire, but he can cover three touchdowns at home.
The Pick: UCLA (-19)
Bowling Green at No. 25 Tennessee
The Line: Tennessee (-21)
I'm in on Tennessee as an SEC contender, but so is basically everyone else. The Vols were one of the "Teams of the Offseason," the sleepers who gain momentum throughout the summer. The way the media has taken to them (myself included) reminds me of UCLA in 2014.
And that makes this feel like a sucker bet.
Yes, Tennessee will win, but 21 points is a lot. Even if it leads by more at some point, Bowling Green has the weapons to strike back.
The Falcons return 10 offensive starters—chief among them quarterback Matt Johnson, running back Travis Greene and wide receiver Roger Lewis—and enter Year 2 under Art Briles disciple Dino Babers. They took a step back last season but should improve with Johnson healthy and with added familiarity in Babers' system.
I'm hoping I'm right and the Vols cost people money. That will sink the line a few points against Oklahoma in Week 2. And that's where I intend to start wagering on Tennessee this season.
Not when I smell a backdoor cover.
The Pick: Bowling Green (+21)
No. 15 Arizona State at Texas A&M
The Line: Texas A&M (-3)
I'm typically a numbers-first bettor. I trust data more than dumb things like my gut or my eyes or my frequently wrong opinion. But every once in a while I ignore my better judgment and pick a game I feel strongly about, without knowing why, despite what the numbers tell me.
So let me take Texas A&M.
I say that knowing the wrong team is favored. Fremeau's projections give the Sun Devils a 62 percent chance of winning straight up, which is a huge number for a team getting three points. The sharps will have ASU, and the squares will have A&M. I get it.
I just can't shake the image of what the Aggies did in Week 1 last season. I know it's the reason this line is tilted, but head coach Kevin Sumlin spent seven months working on his game plan, came up with the perfect strategy, brought a young team into Williams-Brice Stadium and beat the stuffing out of then-No. 9 South Carolina.
Texas A&M has better athletes than Arizona State. It's playing this game closer to home (in Houston). It has Sumlin off a seven-month bye running the offense and John Chavis running the defense.
I get why the numbers favor Arizona State: They've been better than A&M the past two seasons; they have more continuity; etc. I'm willingly being a sucker and following my gut over my head.
Feel free to fade this accordingly.
The Pick: Texas A&M (-3)
Texas at No. 11 Notre Dame
The Line: Notre Dame (-10)
Of all the ranked games on the schedule, this is the one Fremeau's projections feel strongest about. Oddsmakers have Notre Dame as a 10-point home favorite.
Fremeau has Notre Dame by 22.
It's unusual to see the Irish, one of college football's most publicly bet teams, undervalued by so many points, but it makes sense when you consider the opponent. Notre Dame is one of college football's most publicly bet teams; Texas is the clear No. 1.
The Longhorns played well in the middle of last season but struggled at the start (a 41-7 loss to BYU) and at the end (outscored 79-17 by TCU and Arkansas). They're building something slowly under head coach Charlie Strong, but the offense isn't ready for prime time.
That is problematic against a Notre Dame defense with potential first-round draft picks along the defensive line (Sheldon Day), at linebacker (Jaylon Smith) and in the secondary (KeiVarae Russell). Short of a return or a turnover, I don't see how Texas reaches 14 points.
The Pick: Notre Dame (-10)
No. 20 Wisconsin at No. 3 Alabama
The Line: Alabama (-10)
Wisconsin is roughly as good as West Virginia was last season, Virginia Tech was two seasons ago and Michigan was in 2012. It might turn out a little better, it might turn out a little worse, but it won't skew too far either direction.
Alabama swept those other three teams in neutral-site season openers, but it didn't follow any sort of pattern. It ambushed Michigan from start to finish (41-14), struggled to move the ball but rode special teams and turnovers over Virginia Tech (35-10) and needed all 60 minutes against West Virginia (33-23).
Notably, despite the variance in how Alabama performed, it won each game by double digits. That's just what Alabama does. Even after bowl losses to Oklahoma and Ohio State the past two seasons, it leads the country in average margin of victory over nonconference opponents (30.9) since 2009. The next-closest team (Oregon, 26.4) is more than four points per game behind it.
How is Wisconsin's offense supposed to keep up?
The Pick: Alabama (-10)
No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech
The Line: Ohio State (-12.5)
I love Virginia Tech in this spot.
Ohio State is the better team and my choice to win the national championship and yada yada yada, blah blah blah.
I still love Virginia Tech in this spot.
The Hokies are 5-1 against the spread as home underdogs since 2003. They beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe last season. They also opened the year against a defending national champion, Alabama, two seasons ago, and although they lost that game 35-10, the score doesn't tell the whole story. They outgained Alabama and averaged more yards per play but allowed three non-offensive touchdowns. The adjusted score, per Connelly, was Alabama 21.1, Virginia Tech 13.8.
And that game was played on a neutral field.
Monday's game will be played in Lane Stadium, which at night is hostile territory. It will not feature defensive end Joey Bosa (the best player in college football) and skill players Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, Corey Smith and Noah Brown, the first four of whom are suspended, and the last of whom suffered a leg injury.
Ohio State's offense can overcome pretty much anything. It still has Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and a dominant offensive line. It's not like those losses are death sentences.
But they are enough to keep this game close.
The Pick: Virginia Tech (+12.5)
Other Top 25 Games
UTSA at No. 22 Arizona (-31.5)
UTSA is starting from scratch after the first full class of seniors in program history, which made up most of last year's depth chart, graduated this offseason. Arizona struggled to a three-point win at UTSA in 2014 but should find the going easier in Tucson. It honestly might cover the spread by halftime.
The Pick: Arizona (-31.5)
No. 4 Baylor (-35.5) at SMU
What am I missing? Seriously…why is this spread so low? Baylor has won its past six regular-season nonconference games by 42, 64, 45, 63, 57 and 66 points, respectively. That's an average of 56.2 points per win. Is it because SMU head coach Chad Morris is a "Texas Guy," and so Art Briles won't run up the score on him? That's honestly all I can think of. But whatever. I never say no to Baylor at a discount.
The Pick: Baylor (-35.5)
No. 5 Michigan State (-18.5) at Western Michigan
Michigan State needed two defensive touchdowns to beat Western Michigan, 26-13, in Week 1 two years ago. That game was played in East Lansing against a WMU team that finished 1-11; this game will be played on the road against a WMU that just went 9-4 and returns 16 starters. Sparty has grown up since then too, but PJ Fleck's team does enough things well to put a scare in them. It also helps that Michigan State might look ahead to Oregon next weekend.
The Pick: Western Michigan (+18.5)
Louisiana-Monroe at No. 9 Georgia (-35.5)
Georgia is more than five touchdowns better than Louisiana-Monroe. Spreads like this are all about incentive. If the Bulldogs get to garbage time (which they should), backup quarterbacks Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta have incentive to lead scoring drives—and not just scoring drives but touchdown drives—in order to pressure starting QB Greyson Lambert. That's when these scores get ugly.
The Pick: Georgia (-35.5)
UTEP at No. 18 Arkansas (-33)
I loved what Arkansas' offense did in nonconference play last season. The Razorbacks know who they are and take sadistic pleasure in running through—not around—smaller teams. They hung 438 rushing yards and 49 points on Texas Tech, and then 52 points on Northern Illinois the following week. Assuming they hit 50 against UTEP, I'll take my chances on the Miners scoring fewer than 17 points.
The Pick: Arkansas (-33)
Akron at No. 19 Oklahoma (-31)
People remember how Akron hung close at Penn State last season, which might compel them to back the underdog. I'll admit I almost fell for it too. But then I remembered how bad Penn State's offense was, and that Akron lost by 31 points at Buffalo. Oklahoma has the same backup quarterback situation as Georgia and will keep its foot on the gas during offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's debut. That sounds like a recipe for a five-touchdown win.
The Pick: Oklahoma (-31)
Texas State at No. 10 Florida State (-30)
I ranked Florida State No. 7 on my preseason ballot, which I later learned was higher than the other 20 voters for the B/R Preseason Poll. I found that a little interesting—especially since I was so hard on the 'Noles last season—but stand by it 100 percent. With Everett Golson starting and Dalvin Cook eligible, Florida State has my favorite group of skill players in the country. I think they make a statement after a long and stressful offseason by grinding Texas State (which is not a bad football team) into powder.
The Pick: Florida State (-30)
Arkansas State at No. 8 USC (-28)
Arkansas State covered a 16-point spread at Tennessee last season, and although it failed to cover against Miami, it only lost by 21 points. USC's roster is dripping with talent, but an offense led by All-Sun Belt quarterback Fredi Knighten can stay within four touchdowns. According to Fremeau's projections, the Red Wolves stand a 60.8 percent chance of losing by fewer than 25 points. In a week in which I took so many big favorites, I'll happily play that number.
The Pick: Arkansas State (+28)