The first full-weekend slate of college football games is rapidly approaching, and there's plenty of value to be had by betting on teams that haven't yet taken the field—you just have to know where to find it. Here are four of our best bets to give you an edge against the spread as football season kicks off in earnest.
ARMY (+14) at Duke
Fri. 8/31, 7:00 p.m. EST
Option quarterback extraordinaire Ahmad Bradshaw has completed his service at West Point, but the Black Knights' offense will otherwise look the same in 2018. Relying on the run almost exclusively, Army amassed half as many wins (10) as it did completed passes last season. Junior QB Kelvin Hopkins is expected to run Jeff Monken's tried-and-true system, and he'll have experienced running backs—fullback Darnell Woolfolk and slot back Kell Walker, primarily—to help carry the load.
"We're going to have to spread the ball around more and rely on those really good [fullbacks]," Monken told the Times Herald-Record.
Regardless of who is under center, Army will kill clock while running the ball—making 14 points look even more appealing. In 2017, Army lost only four fumbles in 785 rushing plays. It is the football version of a possession arrow.
While Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can run and throw with facility, the redshirt junior will be under duress from an Army defense that is much more versatile than its counterpart on offense. (Army held Duke to 16 points last season, and shut out rival Air Force a week later.) In the weaker Coastal Division of the ACC, Duke has a chance to succeed given its range of returning starters. But in the first game of a season against a unique opponent, take the two touchdowns and run. –Ed McGrogan
Indiana at FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (+10.5)
Sat. 9/1, 7:00 p.m. EST
It’s hard not to view Indiana’s football program as moving in the wrong direction. After having reached back-to-back bowl games in 2015 and ’16 for the first time in a quarter century, head coach Kevin Wilson resigned. His replacement was an underwhelming hire, as Tom Allen is a former high school coach who had spent only two previous seasons as a defensive coordinator (in 2015 at South Florida and in 2016 at Indiana). The Hoosiers finished 5-7 in Allen’s first season as head coach a year ago, and Hawaii was the lone FBS team with fewer ATS wins than Indiana in 2017—the Rainbow Warriors went 2-9-1 ATS, while the Hoosiers went 3-9 ATS.
While some believe Indiana is in a position to rebound a season after having lost four 2017 games by eight points or fewer, the team returns only three starters on defense. The unit must replace its top five tacklers from 2017, including outstanding linebacker Tegray Scales. And the offense suffered a big blow as leading rusher Morgan Ellison has been suspended indefinitely.
The Panthers, meanwhile, appear to be a program on the rise after having gone 8-5 in their first season under veteran head coach Butch Davis, who owns a career record of 87-48 over 11 seasons between Miami, North Carolina and FIU. Davis also happens to be the last head coach to lead the Cleveland Browns to a playoff berth. Although FIU no longer has Alex McGough as its quarterback, the offense returns seven starters and will begin the 2018 season with an experienced offensive line.
The Panthers were a home underdog four times last season, and they won all four games outright—three times by double digits, and by an average margin of 15.5 points per game. While suggesting that FIU should be favored here would certainly be going way too far, a double-digit point spread seems similarly out of line. And FIU's coaching advantage—in a game for which it had several weeks to prepare—is a compelling reason to play the moneyline, as long as it remains in the neighborhood of +350. –Scott Gramling
Michigan at NOTRE DAME (+1.5)
Sat. 9/1, 7:30 pm
I get why people are excited about Michigan this year, and I am too. There's talent up and down the roster, especially on defense, with Rashan Gary leading a ferocious front and DBs Lavert Hill and Tyree Kinnel anchoring one of the nation's best secondaries. Most of the hype in Ann Arbor, though, surrounds incoming transfer Shea Patterson.
Patterson will be the best quarterback Jim Harbaugh has coached at Michigan, and many believe his arm significantly raises the ceiling for this team. But there are reasons to pump the brakes. While he showed flashes of brilliance at Ole Miss, Patterson was inconsistent on the whole, and played only 10 games across two seasons. Plus, this year's opener will mark his first time running a pro-style offense at the collegiate level. That's an adjustment that takes time, regardless of talent.
The setting of Patterson's Michigan debut—opening night in South Bend—should also be a concern for those backing the Wolverines. Notre Dame allowed only 19.3 PPG at home last season and went 6-1, losing only to Georgia in a one-point nail-biter. With the notable exception of coordinator Mike Elko, that defense brings back almost everyone this year. Legitimate questions on the offensive side of the ball likely account for the Irish's underdog status in this one, but I'll happily take them +1.5 to bruise their way to a season-opening victory over Michigan. –Sam Chase
MIAMI (-3) vs. LSU
Sun. 9/2, 7:30 pm in Arlington, TX
Last season, Miami allowed only 19.9 PPG and forced 31 turnovers, which was the third-best mark in the nation. You remember the turnover chain, don’t you? Well, the Hurricanes return seven starters from that aggressive unit—including two stars in linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and safety Jaquan Johnson. That is bad news for an LSU offense that could be one of the SEC’s worst.
The Tigers averaged only 27.2 PPG in 2017 (ninth in SEC), and their situation at both quarterback and running back is far murkier this season. The program also downgraded by replacing offensive coordinator Matt Canada with Steve Ensminger. Look for LSU to really struggle to move the chains.
As for Miami, inconsistent QB Malik Rosier is back to lead Mark Richt’s offense. He’s not the perfect guy for the job, but the experience he earned last season should serve him well in a neutral-field game like this one. And RB Travis Homer is talented enough to do some of the heavy lifting behind him.
The Hurricanes are far from explosive offensively, but I expect them to find a way to punch the ball into the end zone at least two or three times. That should be enough against an LSU offense as inept as this one. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Hurricanes defense scored a touchdown. The Tigers simply need more than just three here. –Zachary Cohen