The calendar flips to September this Saturday, marking the first full weekend of college football action. To help advise bettors what games to put their money on, each member of SI's college football staff has offered their top bet on the board, and will do so for every week of this 2018 campaign.
Tennessee vs. West Virginia UNDER 61.5 points
Take the under.
The assumption here is that West Virginia will pour the points on the Volunteers thanks to QB Will Grier and receivers David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms. The other assumption is that Tennessee will be able to make this a shootout for a little while because West Virginia’s defense is so porous.
This underestimates both defenses, and we shouldn’t do that. Tennessee may not have the roster to compete for an SEC title, but the Volunteers still have very good athletes in their first 22. Now put those athletes—in relatively healthy condition—in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense and scoring won’t be that easy even with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. Meanwhile, the additions of graduate transfers Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow should bolster West Virginia’s defensive line, which was its weak link last season.
Another thing to consider: Dana Holgorsen may come from the Air Raid tree, but he has spent the past few seasons trying to ensure the Mountaineers can slow things down and protect a lead in the second half. Unless the Tennessee offense starts shredding West Virginia’s defense, this shouldn’t turn into a shootout. — Andy Staples
Ole Miss + 2 vs. Texas Tech
This could be an explosive matchup offensively, two high-flying offenses dueling it out in Houston. In fact, this is the highest over/under number (67) of any game this week pitting two Power 5 teams. We’re shoving all of our chips in with the Rebels and quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo—he of the Mike Leach coaching tree—did wonders with the junior college transfer at the helm last season following Shea Patterson’s injury, and who’s to say his unit won’t roll a defense that’s in an eternal struggle to reach the middle of the pack? Thing is, the Rebels aren’t too hot defensively either, especially at linebacker. The original “Landshark” defense might be long gone, but Ole Miss is keeping its spirit alive. The school introduced to the confounded masses a new mascot earlier this summer, as Landshark Tony burst from a curtain and onto a dimly lit fog-filled stage. There he was, cold black eyes, a creepy, tooth-bearing wide smile and muscular gray arms protruding from a red Ole Miss football jersey. If this bet fails, take it out on Tony. — Ross Dellenger
Virginia Tech +7 at Florida State
I actually picked Virginia Tech straight up to beat Florida State in Tallahassee, so picking the Hokies to cover in this case wasn't a difficult decision. There's just too much that's new at Florida State; this marks coach Willie Taggart's first game, and the Seminoles just settled on Deondre Francois as their quarterback. I think this game will be closer than a one-touchdown margin as Florida State's offense will struggle to find its identity while Virginia Tech's defense will be better than expected. Sure, the unit lost a ton of its talent from 2017, but coordinator Bud Foster always gets the most out of his roster, and the Hokies’ offense behind quarterback Josh Jackson should be able to hold its own and keep the game close. — Joan Niesen
Louisville vs. Alabama UNDER 62 points
I would only consider taking this over if you think Louisville has a real chance to shock the world and win this thing. The Cardinals bring back just a few central contributors from a defense that was mediocre in some areas (such as getting after the quarterback) and bad in others (such as stopping the run) a year ago, so they will need to score early and often to keep the defending champs within reach. Bobby Petrino's offenses are explosive even when they aren't piloted by a transcendent athlete on Lamar Jackson's level, so it's not out of the question that redshirt sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass has been groomed well enough to oversee a reasonably smooth transition to Life After Lamar.
However, Alabama's defense has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to replacing playmakers, and although the Crimson Tide have to replace several, the front seven's top-line talent should hold steady with Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs dictating things up front and Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses running the show at the middle linebacker spots. Newcomer corners Saivion Smith (a JUCO transfer) and Patrick Surtain Jr. (the top CB in the class of 2018) may be tested early but should have their legs under them by the second half. Nick Saban may melt things down and run more stress tests on his quarterback situation if the Tide pull ahead by three scores. — Eric Single
Michigan PK at Notre Dame
A year ago, Notre Dame relied on a top-10 running game anchored by the best offensive line in the country. With the leaders of that unit now in the NFL, quarterback Brandon Wimbush must prove he can be more proficient in the passing game after completing just 49.5% of his passes for 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2017. Brian Kelly last week alluded to potentially using both Wimbush and backup Ian Book depending on how the game unfolds because the two have different skill sets. How that works within a game plan will be interesting. Michigan, meanwhile, has new QB Shea Patterson starting his first game after transferring from Ole Miss. Last week he lost his No. 1 receiver in Tarik Black to a broken foot, but the Wolverines have experienced running backs returning in Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. This game should be a battle between two solid defenses that could end up being among the nation’s best, but Michigan has an edge with lineman Rashan Gary generating 2019 draft buzz. His matchups against young Irish linemen Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey will be worth watching. — Laken Litman
UNLV +26.5 at USC
This line is a case where I think the underdog is currently undervalued and the favorite is overvalued. The Trojans could have a tricky time adjusting in their first game without Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II. True freshman JT Daniels will make his debut under center, while USC will employ a three-tailback rotation. The offense will have its fair share of growing pains with so many new pieces being implemented. On the flip side, UNLV has dual-threat Armani Rogers at quarterback, the exact type of player USC’s defenses have struggled defending over the years. Senior tailback Lexington Thomas racked up 1,336 rushing yards and 17 TDs on 6.3 yards per carry in 2017. USC’s defensive front will have to respect the threat of both Thomas and Rogers on the ground, which will open up opportunities down the field to attack through the air on RPOs. USC’s next two games are road affairs at Stanford and Texas, so this could be a contest where the Trojans may overlook the opponent a bit. They can’t afford to do that since UNLV is lethal running the ball, which could spell trouble against a unit that finished 113th in the country last season in stuff rate (USC stopped 15.3% of carries by running backs at or before the line of scrimmage in 2017). — Max Meyer
Texas -13.5 vs. Maryland
The Tom Herman era got off to a bad start last year when Maryland walked into Austin and ripped the Texas defense. This time around, Texas is thought by many to be a sleeper in the Big 12, while Maryland ... well, Maryland is having issues, including not knowing if D.J. Durkin will remain head coach due to serious allegations concerning abuse and mistreatment of players.
Texas is settled with Sam Ehlinger at quarterback, so it’s the Longhorns’ defense that will be story of this game.
Improvement was apparent throughout the year after the Maryland embarrassment, as Kansas State was the only other team to score more than 30 points against the Longhorns, and it took two overtimes to accomplish that. Holding Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to under 30 points apiece was an impressive feat as well. Look out for linebacker Breckyn Hager to wreak havoc and lead the charge in stopping the run, while safety Brandon Jones and cornerback Kris Boyd shore up the back end.
The 13.5-point spread is a tough pill to swallow, but with the Terrapins having a tumultous offseason and the talent gap being as wide as it is, don't be afraid to back the de facto road favorite in Landover. — Scooby Axson
Bonus: Group of 5
Louisiana Tech -10.5 at South Alabama
Many believe this to be Skip Holtz’s best team in his six years at Tech. For the first time in his tenure there, he returns a starting quarterback in J’Mar Smith, and while he struggled at times (a season-long 56% completion rate and a 7-for-21 outing vs. UTSA), Smith gives the Bulldogs an experienced dual-threat QB, having put up 371 rushing yards last fall. On defense, Tech returns seven starters, including 10 of its top 14 tacklers from a 7–6 season in 2017. We usually don’t like double-digit road favorites, but this one’s a bit different and Mobile isn’t necessarily a real hostile place to play. Looking down the road, Tech could be 2–0 (it gets Southern at home next week) entering a game at LSU that might be more tricky for the Tigers than it first appeared. The Bulldogs get a bye on Week 3 before traveling to Baton Rouge, and LSU will be coming off a a trip to Auburn. Look out. — Ross Dellenger