Spread Options: College football picks against the spread for Week 1

·8 min read

Week 1 of the 2021 college football season is here and the schedule is loaded.

At this time last year, I was breaking down games like South Alabama vs. Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee vs. Army. That’s how bare the early season schedule was amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things are a little more normal this year and we’ve got a full selection of games — from Thursday all the way through Monday — to sort through on the board at BetMGM. I made two picks in Week 0 and went 1-1. I nailed the under in Hawaii-UCLA, but thought Nebraska giving 6.5 at Illinois was good value. Never again.

Here are my favorite plays for Week 1.

(Note: All times ET, odds from BetMGM)

Temple at Rutgers

Time: 6:30 p.m. (Thursday) | TV: BTN | Line: Rutgers -14.5 | Total: 52.5

Rutgers went 3-6 last year, a clear step in the right direction with Greg Schiano back in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights open the season at home against a Temple team that went 1-6 and dealt with a lot of coronavirus issues throughout the season.

Rutgers has some talent on offense, particularly RB Isaih Pacheco and WR Bo Melton, but doesn’t really generate much of a downfield passing game with Noah Vedral. Rutgers had just 20 passes of 20-plus yards in nine games last year. Temple has some solid transfers at cornerback, so I think Rutgers will be content to get the ball out quick in the underneath game and gash Temple on the ground.

Temple added QB D’Wan Mathis from Georgia, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of help around him. Still, I don’t trust Rutgers to cover 14.5 points.

Pick: Under 52.5

No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota

Time: 8 p.m. (Thursday) | TV: FOX | Line: Ohio State -14 | Total: 63.5

I like Minnesota a lot this year, but this point spread feels too small. I know Ohio State is breaking in a new QB in a tough road environment. But over the course of 60 minutes, the Buckeyes’ talent will win out like it always does.

Ohio State’s talent on offense is ridiculous, especially at receiver. Even if new QB C.J. Stroud has some early jitters, he can just get the ball to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. I also expect OSU to have success on the ground despite some of the transfers Minnesota added up front.

Ohio State receiver Chris Olave plays against Nebraska during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ohio State receiver Chris Olave plays against Nebraska during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

I won’t be surprised if this game is close for a while, perhaps even well into the third quarter. Minnesota can really run the ball, but top WR Chris Autman-Bell is a gametime decision. 

Under Ryan Day, OSU has been a double-digit road favorite in Big Ten play six times. OSU is 5-1 ATS in those spots. The only time the Buckeyes didn’t cover was when they were 52-point favorites over Rutgers and won by 35. I think OSU will pull away late and cover the spread.

Pick: Ohio State -14

Western Michigan at Michigan

Time: Noon | TV: ESPN | Line: Michigan -17 | Total: 66.5

The 2020 season was disastrous for Michigan, but I think a bounce back to respectability is coming. Before 2020, UM had won at least eight games in every season under Jim Harbaugh. There’s a lot to like about this team, but this opener against an upper-tier MAC team in Western Michigan could be tricky.

Anxious to move past the angst of 2020, I’m not looking at Michigan to cover 17 points here. But I do think this total is way too high. When Harbaugh brought Josh Gattis in to run the offense, the young OC promised a more uptempo scheme. It hasn’t worked thus far, and I expect UM to move back to a bit more of a physical style — at least in the early season.

The Wolverines have a solid offensive line and should be able to run the ball here with Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and freshman Donovan Edwards while the defense keeps a talented WMU offense mostly in check. 

Pick: Under 66.5

Oregon State at Purdue

Time: 7 p.m. | TV: FS1 | Line: Purdue -7 | Total: 68.5

Purdue has really struggled on defense in recent years and I don’t think this is a good Week 1 matchup for the Boilermakers. Oregon State has gotten a lot better under Jonathan Smith and has consistently put up big numbers on offense. The Beavers have Colorado transfer Sam Noyer at QB, depth at receiver and running back and all five starters back on the offensive line.

Purdue is going to be able to put up some points, too. David Bell is one of the best receivers in the country, but the Boilermakers are shaky up front and could not run the ball at all last year.

Since Smith arrived in Corvallis in 2018, OSU is 11-3 against the spread as a road underdog. That includes covering in eight straight. This spread is too big. I’m on OSU and might sprinkle a bit on the moneyline (+200).

Pick: Oregon State +7

Baylor at Texas State

Time: 7 p.m. | TV: ESPN+ | Line: Baylor -14 | Total: 53.5

Texas State was much better in 2020 than its 2-10 record shows. Of those 10 losses, six were by 10 points or fewer. Those close losses included SMU, Boston College and Louisiana. Overall, the Bobcats were 7-5 ATS with a 4-2 ATS mark at home — and that was during a season filled with plenty of COVID absences.

Opening the season against Baylor won’t be easy, but I think the Bobcats have enough offensive talent to keep this one close — especially at home. They 17 starters back overall, including QB Brady McBride, four offensive linemen, their top three running backs and their top receiver.

At the same time, I don’t think Baylor’s offense is explosive enough to really blow anybody out. The Bears are implementing a new system, really struggled up front last year and will have a new starting QB, Gerry Bohanon. Baylor fans are going to have to sweat this one out.

Pick: Texas State +14

Florida Atlantic at No. 13 Florida

Time: 7:30 p.m. | TV: SECN | Line: Florida -23.5 | Total: 52

We don’t know exactly what it will look like, but Florida’s offense is going to score a lot of points again in 2021. With Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and others off to the NFL, Dan Mullen gets to shuffle his offensive approach a bit with dual-threat Emory Jones at QB. Jones is more in the mold of QBs Mullen coached in the past, dating back to his days as an offensive coordinator.

On the other side, I’m expecting a big jump offensively from Florida Atlantic in Year 2 under Willie Taggart. FAU’s defense in 2020 was quite good, but the offense really struggled through the air. But with an infusion of transfers, including ex-Miami QB N’Kosi Perry and ex-USF RB Johnny Ford, I think the Owls will have more success in 2021. That includes reaching the end zone a few times in Week 1 in Gainesville.

Pick: Over 52

FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2020, file photo, Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) throws a pass in the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas. Jones first landed on Dan Mullen’s recruiting radar seven years ago. Jones was a high school freshman in LaGrange, Ga., and Mullen was scouring the country for another spread quarterback at Mississippi State. They bonded quickly, and when Mullen took over in Gainesville three years later, he asked Jones to join him. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)
It's finally time for Emory Jones to take over as Florida's starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)

Northern Illinois at Georgia Tech

Time: 7:30 p.m. | TV: ACCN | Line: GT -18 | Total: 58

With the schedule Georgia Tech has in front of it, it is not going to get a lot of opportunities to beat up on other teams. This week, it does.

Northern Illinois has been pretty bad under Thomas Hammock. The Huskies went 0-6 in last year’s abbreviated MAC season and has seen its talent level depleted since Rod Carey left for Temple. Even late in Carey’s tenure, NIU started to lose more games than the fan base was accustomed to. Now NIU could be a MAC bottom feeder again.

The transition from the option offense hasn’t been easy at Georgia Tech for Geoff Collins. At this point in his tenure, he has identified some exciting talent — especially QB Jeff Sims and RB Jahmyr Gibbs. If the Yellow Jackets avoid turnovers, they should cruise.

Pick: Georgia Tech -18

No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State

Time: 7:30 p.m. (Sunday) | TV: ABC | Line: ND -7.5 | Total: 55.5

I know a lot of people are expecting a step back from Notre Dame in 2021, but I think this team has the chance to be really good again. Maybe not undefeated in the regular season good, but top 10 in the country good.

The Irish’s weaknesses were exploited against Clemson and Alabama late last year, but the Week 1 opponent isn’t of that caliber. It’s a rebuilding Florida State team. Mike Norvell has added a ton of transfers to bolster this FSU roster, and trying to assemble a cohesive unit with so many new parts is a tough thing to do — especially with such a bruising Week 1 opponent like Notre Dame.

For ND, I think Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan will be solid at QB, especially behind a good offensive line and with so much running back and tight end talent. And who knows, maybe this will be the year Kevin Austin emerges as a big-play threat at receiver. 

Pick: Notre Dame -7.5

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