- After winning our Week 0 best bet, we have five top plays for Week 1, including a major revenge spot and going against a few teams that had plenty of offseason hype.
SI Gambling’s college football best bets started off the season on the right foot after the Florida/Miami 1H under cashed. But with more games on the docket in Week 1, there will be more best bets provided in this space. SI Gambling will be using current odds from New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill, PointsBet) for best bets every week.
BYU vs. Utah: BYU +3.5 first half (-120) at DraftKings
If Lee Corso predicting Utah to advance all the way to the CFP championship game vs. Alabama doesn’t sound the alarm for how out of control the Utes’ hype is getting, I don’t know what will. And to be fair, I think Utah does have a good shot at winning the Pac-12. But because of the giant lovefest with this team, there could be nice value fading the Utes early on.
The Holy War is a nice place to start. BYU ended its regular season by completely collapsing against Utah, blowing a 27-7 lead in the third quarter to its hated in-state rivals before falling 35-27. You better believe that revenge is on the Cougars’ minds here, and they’ll want to make a statement in what should be a frenzied home atmosphere Thursday night.
Zach Wilson took over the starting job in the middle of his freshman season last year, and showed immense promise. He completed 65.9% of his throws (which would have been tied for 17th in CFB had he qualified), averaged 8.67 YPA (10th) and had 12 touchdown throws versus just three interceptions. He ended his campaign on a strong note too: In his last two games, which came at Utah and against Western Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl, he completed 80.9% of his throws (going 18 for 18 vs. WMU surely helps), averaged 11.1 yards per attempt and had six touchdowns with just one pick. Oh, and he rushed for 96 yards to boot, with 73 of them coming vs. Utah.
Now as a sophomore and in offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes’s second year at BYU, expect Wilson to take the leap. Watch out for his top target, star tight end Matt Bushman, as well. The junior led BYU in receptions, yards and yards per catch last season, and racked up six catches for 92 yards against Utah last season. If there’s a weakness on this Utah defense, it’s at linebacker, where it has to replace one of the top tandems in program history in Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. Bushman can take advantage of whoever is covering him, and will be an X-factor in this one.
BYU last season faced Utah when the Utes were without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and star tailback Zack Moss, and those are obviously upgrades over Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne in 2018. But you could see some rust early on for Huntley and Moss as they get acclimated back, as they each missed the final five games due to injury. With new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who was also Utah’s OC from 2005–08, there could also be some growing pains adjusting to a new system.
I’m also really interested to see how Utah replaces star kicker Matt Gay (2017 Lou Groza winner, two-time first-team all-Pac-12) and punter Mitch Wishnowsky (2016 Ray Guy winner, three-time first-team all-Pac-12). The Utes have typically had a massive special teams advantage over their opponents in recent season, but that may not be the case this time around.
While it’s unrealistic to expect BYU to jump out to another 20-0 halftime lead for the second straight season, this will be a very physical game where points are difficult to come by. I think the home underdog will stay in it early on in this heavyweight matchup, especially with the level of familiarity it has with this Utah team it just faced in late November. I'll take BYU and the points for the first half, especially with the hook available here.
Auburn vs. Oregon (at AT&T Stadium): Auburn -3.5 (-110) at PointsBet
Are we fading another ranked Pac-12 team? You better believe it!
Oregon’s offensive line has been touted as one of the nation’s best, and it returns all five starters, including boasting four seniors. But the Ducks struggled against strong defensive lines last season. Against Utah, a 32-25 loss, they gave up four sacks, 12 TFL and only were able to rush for 3.7 YPC. Against Michigan State, a 7-6 win, they gave up three sacks, six TFL and only were able to rush for 1.4 YPC. I think that this OL will be similarly disadvantaged against an Auburn defensive line that may very well be the best in the country. Good luck trying to block Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe.
Meanwhile, Auburn’s offensive line underwent a major transition last season. It had to replace four linemen who combined for 121 career starts. As you can probably predict, it took time for the new OL to gel and Auburn was a train wreck upfront to start the season. The Tigers only averaged 3.7 YPC in their first seven games against FBS foes. But in their final four games, that number jumped up to 4.4, and that included games at Georgia and at Alabama. Now they return all five starters from that line, along with sophomore tailback JaTarvious Whitlow, who averaged 5.2 YPC as a freshman.
This will be Auburn true freshman quarterback Bo Nix’s debut, but the former five-star recruit is going up against an Oregon defense with a new defensive coordinator calling the shots in Andy Avalos. He replaces Jim Leavitt, who completely turned around that unit. In the season before he took over, Oregon ranked 119th in defensive S&P+. The Ducks leapt up to 61st in 2017 and then made a small step forward last season to 50th. It will be interesting to see if top-rated recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux and Co. can generate pressure on Nix, as pass-rushers Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins are both gone.
Oregon does have a big quarterback edge here in Justin Herbert, who is projected to be a first-round pick in next year’s draft. But he’s been far more ineffective away from Eugene: Herbert has a 3-7 road record against Pac-12 opponents and has disappointed in two bowl games—a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl and a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl. Oregon’s receiving corps have also suffered a lot of injuries in the preseason, and Herbert lost his top target Dillon Mitchell to the NFL. Auburn returns all four starters in the secondary, including one of the SEC’s strongest safety duos in seniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas.
I also don't trust Oregon's coaches in a big game like this. Head coach Mario Cristobal's late-game decision-making left a lot to be desired, as did offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo's play-calling. Don't be fooled by the Ducks' preseason No. 11 ranking; there's a reason why the lower-ranked Auburn is the favorite on the neutral field. The Tigers are the better team, and expect a Pac-12 team to sputter once again in a marquee matchup against a strong Power 5 opponent.
USC vs. Fresno State: USC -13.5 (-110) at PointsBet
Ok, I’ll bite: I’ll side with one Pac-12 team here, but probably the one that most are looking to fade in 2019.
I’m not exactly sold on USC’s prospects for this upcoming season, but this is a really strong spot for the Trojans. They are facing a Fresno State team that is replacing nine starters on offense, including its starting quarterback, three top wideouts and four starting offensive linemen.
USC got gashed by big plays last season, ranking 90th in defensive IsoPPP and surrendered 3.5 passes of at least 20 yards per game (87th). The Trojans are also replacing most of their secondary, and all five members of USC’s projected starting secondary are either freshmen or sophomores. But with all the new pieces being worked into Fresno State’s passing attack, this isn’t a team that will take advantage of USC’s cover men.
Where USC does have a clear defensive advantage in is the trenches. Christian Rector, Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu are all game-changers, while true freshman defensive end Drake Jackson appears poised to do big things as well. Against an aforementioned Fresno OL that is replacing four OL, it could be a brutal first start for quarterback Jorge Reyna.
On defense, the Bulldogs were exceptional in pass coverage last season, and return cornerback Jaron Bryant and safety Juju Hughes from that stingy secondary. But going up against USC’s receiving corps, one of the best in the country, will be a tough task for Fresno State. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns are all studs, and they and quarterback JT Daniels should benefit from new OC Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system—which is designed to give Daniels easier completions compared to the boom-or-bust mentality USC’s plays often had last season.
The big Achilles’ heel for USC over the past few seasons has been its offensive line, but for as good as Fresno State’s defense was last season, the Bulldogs don’t have the best personnel to exploit this weakness. The Bulldogs ranked 105th in sack rate and 112th in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), two metrics that show that the defensive line wasn’t creating much disruption.
Backing Clay Helton, who does less with more better than any coach in the country, and going against Jeff Tedford, who does more with less as well as any coach in the country, is a scary proposition. But I think the Trojans will be looking to send a message after their embarrassing 5-7 campaign last season, and they will take it out on a transitioning Fresno State team.
Louisiana +20.5 vs. Mississippi State (at Mercedez-Benz Superdome): Louisiana +20.5 (-110) at William Hill
The Ragin’ Cajuns lost 56-10 at Mississippi State last season in Billy Napier’s second game coaching the team. But Napier is looking to take another step forward in Year 2 after finishing 7-7 last year, and he has the offense to do so.
Louisiana had an incredibly explosive offense last season, ranking fifth in the country in IsoPPP. That was in large part due to a dynamic run game, which was tied for the third-most 30-yard-plus runs (20) and 40-yard-plus runs (13). Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais combined for 2,912 rushing yards on 433 carries in 2018 (6.7 YPC) and 28 rushing touchdowns. All three return, and will be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters, and all of them are seniors.
Mississippi State had a ferocious defense last season, and allowed the fourth-lowest YPC (2.9) and fewest rushing touchdowns (seven) in the country. But the Bulldogs lose their entire front four, including first-round picks Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. They also have to replace first-round safety Johnathan Abram and fellow starting safety Mark McLaurin, whose six interceptions were tied for the most in the SEC.
Mississippi State has a lot of defensive depth, so it should still be a relatively strong unit. But the Bulldogs having one of the best defenses again after losing all those impact players is a longshot.
On offense, Mississippi State will have a new face at quarterback. Nick Fitzgerald, one of the top quarterbacks in program history, graduated. In comes Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens, who reunites with Mississippi State head coach and former Penn State OC Joe Moorhead. Stevens has a strong arm, but has had accuracy issues (58.5% completion rate) in limited action and it’ll be tough to replace Fitzgerald’s impact with his legs—he was the SEC’s all-time leading rusher for a quarterback.
Louisiana’s defense was not great last season, but it was still improved from the year before and returns seven starters—including playmaking linebackers Jacques Boudreaux and Chauncey Manac. The Ragin’ Cajuns also get back pass-rusher Joe Dillon, a 2016 Freshman All-American who missed all of last season with a hip injury.
Another key factor for Mississippi State is that it will lose several players due to suspension following an academic scandal. Moorhead hasn’t revealed who the suspended players are yet, but given that 10 players violated academic policies, it could create some problems on the depth chart.
This game is Louisiana’s Super Bowl. It’s the only Power 5 opponent it’ll play in the regular season, and it takes place in its home state at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome. I trust Napier, a former assistant under both Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, to get his team prepared for this one.
Louisiana Tech at Texas: Louisiana Tech +20.5 (-110) at FanDuel
Another 20.5-point underdog from the state of Louisiana facing a Power 5 foe? Sure, why not.
Texas will be a team that I’ll be looking to fade early and often this season. A bowl game victory over Georgia has caused a hype train for a team that wasn’t nearly as good as its 10-4 record would suggest. It was outgained in terms of yards per play—the offense averaged 5.5 YPP while the defense allowed 5.6 YPP. The Longhorns have to replace eight defensive starters, as well as three starting offensive linemen and Sam Ehlinger’s top target, Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
The Longhorns also didn’t blow out inferior competition. After losing their opener to Maryland, they were only able to beat a lowly Tulsa team by seven points. Games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas were all decided by one score, and none of those teams made bowl games. Tom Herman has a spectacular record as an underdog. But performing well when expected to win? Not so much: He’s 6-15-1 against the spread as a home favorite.
This game has lookahead spot written all over it, as Texas hosts LSU the following week. Louisiana Tech lost NCAA career sacks leader Jaylon Ferguson and has to replace its entire defensive line, but it has a strong secondary, led by cornerback Amik Robertson. The good news for the Bulldogs’ defense and new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is that Texas wasn’t particularly explosive last season, even with Humphrey and fellow star wideout Collin Johnson. The Longhorns only had six plays of at least 40 yards (124th in CFB) and were one of two teams without a 50-yard gain (Central Michigan being the other).
The Bulldogs’ offense is led by senior quarterback J’Mar Smith and has amassed impressive depth at the skill positions, headlined by star wideout Adrian Hardy. Hardy exploded for 10 catches, 181 yards and two touchdowns last season against LSU, and will be going up against a Texas secondary that has two new starting cornerbacks.
I’ll admit, this pick is more of a fade of Texas and taking advantage of a nice spot for Louisiana Tech as opposed to backing Louisiana Tech as a legitimate upset candidate (Louisiana has a much better chance of doing so vs. Mississippi State, in my opinion). However, 20.5 points is quite a lot, and I think a retooled Texas team will be taking this one lightly with a heavyweight battle against LSU on deck.
Season Record: 1-0