Our college football staff has picked every key Week 1 game against the spread, and now the staff is examining which team is the strongest bet to cover in every Power 5 conference. Using the latest odds from William Hill before this piece publishes, here is who we think can win you some money.
No. 11 Oregon (+3.5) vs. No. 16 Auburn
The Tigers are starting a true freshman quarterback under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium in a game against a top-15 team that returns most of its 2018 defensive starters. Bo Nix is in for one hell of a challenge in his first college football game. On the other side, a Ducks offense that lost one starter from last year is captained by Heisman Trophy hopeful Justin Herbert. For us, this wasn't a difficult pick. That said... we thought that a similar matchup last year—Washington vs. Auburn in Atlanta—would go the Huskies' way, and we all know how that turned out (if you don't know, Auburn won 21-16). To begin 2019, let's hope we haven't led you astray again. — Ross Dellenger
No. 22 Syracuse (-18.5) at Liberty
Syracuse is the country's No. 22 team, and it deserves that kind of optimism after a strong 2018. Sure, its offense is going to look different without quarterback Eric Dungey—but Liberty is in just its second year at the FBS level, and it lost its two games against Power 5 opponents last year by an average margin of 37 points. Those teams, Auburn and Virginia, were probably worse than Syracuse will be this year, even as it settles into its new offense. — Joan Niesen
No. 18 Wisconsin (-12.5) at South Florida
Running back Jonathan Taylor took full advantage of the spotlight last year as a sophomore, leading the nation with eye-popping numbers. He ran for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns despite Wisconsin only going 8-5. In two seasons in Madison, he’s racked up 4,171 yards—more than any player in the history of college football, including former Wisconsin running back and 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. If he has another 2,000-yard season as a junior, he could become one of the five top all-time leading rushers.
However, while the Badgers have a solid offense and are a dark-horse pick to win the Big Ten West, there are question marks on defense, which allowed an average of 344.4 yards per game last season. That might create an opportunity for South Florida QB Blake Barnett, who completed more than 61% of his passes in 2018, but only if his young offensive line (which allowed nearly 2.9 sacks per game) can protect him. Even if the Bulls’ offense is improved, the defense is unlikely to be able to handle Taylor’s dominance. USF ranked among the worst units in nearly every defensive category last season, including having the No. 123 rushing defense, allowing 247.5 yards per game and 36 TDs. — Laken Litman
Oklahoma State at Oregon State: OVER 72 Points
Of the 10 teams in the Big 12, Oklahoma State and its bitter rival Oklahoma are the only ones that have a Power 5 opponent on the schedule in Week 1. The Cowboys’ opponent this weekend is Oregon State, who might be competing for the worst team in the upper echelon of college football. Aesthetically speaking, neither of these teams play a lick of defense, so expect fireworks early and often, especially when Oklahoma State has the ball. While the Big 12’s OSU is a deserved two-touchdown favorite, smart money says take the over on the total. — Scooby Axson
Louisiana Tech at No. 10 Texas (-20.5)
Texas fans are well-versed in early-season disappointments after opening-day losses to Maryland in 2017 and 2018. But the Longhorns aren't in any danger of dropping their season opener in Austin this season. Texas enters 2019 No. 10 in the AP poll, and this isn't a case of unearned early-season hype. Texas should be one of college football's most explosive offenses led by elite dual-threat quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and 2019 marks Ehlinger's second full year as the Longhorns' starter and his third year in Tom Herman's offense. Previous openers for Texas featured communication errors, turnovers and plenty of penalties. A seasoned Longhorns offense should be able to approach 40 points against Louisiana Tech, even with an injured backfield.
The Longhorns are a strong bet as less than three touchdown favorites at home on Saturday. Louisiana Tech didn't earn a first-place vote in the preseason Conference USA poll, and the Bulldogs had to replace defensive coordinator Blake Baker and NCAA career sacks leader Jaylon Ferguson. Expect the Longhorns to rack up the points and cover against Louisiana State in Week 1. — Michael Shapiro
No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn (-3.5)
Welcome back to the world of Pac-12 betting, where underdogs are live every week and the conference is seemingly always overmatched against strong competition. While I will be choosing a lot of underdogs throughout the season in this space, I'm rolling with a small favorite this week.
I'm not buying the hype on this Ducks team, and Justin Herbert has shrunk consistently playing outside of Eugene. Herbert has a 3-7 road record in Pac-12 play, and has registered an abysmal 5.8 YPA in two career bowl games against Boise State and Michigan State. He'll have a lot of trouble here if Oregon's highly touted offensive line isn't consistently giving him clean pockets, and this was a group that struggled last season against Utah and Michigan State, two defenses that featured strong defensive lines. Auburn could very well have the best defensive line in the country, and its veteran secondary also matches up well against an injury-depleted Oregon receiving corps.
Auburn had a down year on offense in 2018, and a lot of that can be attributed to have to replace four starters on the offensive line who combined for 121 career starts. But the new OL gelled late last season, which led to much better run blocking and pass protection down the stretch. All five of those linemen return, and if that group can take another step forward, that will make life much easier for five-star true freshman quarterback Bo Nix.
The Tigers have the better team and the better coaching staff, which is why you see Vegas favoring a lower-ranked team on a neutral field. But because of the buzz surrounding Herbert, a likely future first-round pick, I still think there's value here. If Auburn wins the trenches, which I think it will, it should win this game handedly. If you need to be convinced even further that Auburn is the right side, I go more in depth with my Week 1 best bets piece. — Max Meyer