2021 College Football Betting Preview: Pivotal Matchups Dot Opening-Week Schedule

The first full weekend of college football does not start and end with Clemson-Georgia, although it may seem that way. There are several Big Ten and ACC games that have immediate conference title implications.

No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech

Friday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN

Line: North Carolina -5.5, 64.5 total

North Carolina junior quarterback Sam Howell is a top Heisman Trophy candidate in a field full of strong arms, and he throws the best deep ball in the FBS, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Howell’s 68 career touchdown passes are the most for any sophomore in ACC history. In a deeper dive by PFF, Howell threw for 637 yards on “go” routes last season, which was 213 more than any other quarterback in the Power Five. 

The loss of 1,000-yard rushers Javonte Williams and Michael Carter muddies the water, however, because the Tar Heels’ RPO attack relies on a strong ground game to keep the clutter away from Howell. Williams and Carter rushed for 383 yards and four touchdowns in the 56-45 victory over the Hokies last season, while Howell passed only 23 times for 257 yards.

Virginia Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a transfer from Oregon, passed for 687 yards in four starts last season. The Hokies’ defense, which struggled a year ago after a coordinator change, is believed to be a team strength The winner of this game should contend with Miami, Fla., for the ACC Coastal Division title, and the Tar Heels play Miami at home. The Hokies had a four-game  winning streak against North Carolina snapped last season.

The pick: Virginia Tech +5.5

No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin

Saturday, Noon ET, FOX

Line: Wisconsin -5.5, 49.5 total

Both teams would just as soon burn the film of their forgettable 2020 seasons. After blowing out Illinois behind freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, Wisconsin was forced to cancel its next two games when Mertz and others were diagnosed with COVID-19. The Badgers later suffered through a three-game losing streak in which they scored fewer than 10 points in all three games, the first time that had happened in 30 years. 

Penn State lost its first five games before winning its last four. None of those victories came against a team with a winning record, and two of the losses were to Nebraska (at home) and Maryland.

The Badgers led the Big Ten in total defense (299.9 yards per game) and rushing defense (96.1) last season, finishing fifth in the FBS in both categories.

The Nittany Lions have won the last four meetings and six of the last seven, although because they play in different Big Ten divisions, do not play every year. Penn State covered as a 7.5-point favorite in their last meeting, at home in 2018.

Mertz and Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford are back, but Clifford regressed last season, his second as the starter.

Wisconsin has been favored by seven points or less at home only twice in the last four seasons, and it covered both, victories over Michigan in 2017 and 2019. The Nittany Lions are 3-1 as a road dog the last four seasons, twice covering at Ohio State.

The pick: Wisconsin -5.5

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami in Atlanta, Ga.

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Line: Alabama -19.5, 61.5 total

Alabama may be breaking in a new quarterback, a new running back and a new receiving corps, but the Crimson Tide never seem to a) waver or b) need time to adjust.

Alabama has played 10 neutral-site season openers under coach Nick Saban and won all 10 by an average margin of 26.7 points. Six of the meetings were against ranked opponents, including a 35-20 victory over No. 20 Wisconsin in 2015, a 52-6 victory over No. 20 USC in 2016 and a 24-7 victory over No. 3 Florida State in 2017.

The Crimson Tide is 14-0 in season openers of any kind under Saban, 12-2 ATS. 

Bryce Young will replace Mac Jones at quarterback for Bama and running back Brian Robinson Jr. is expected to get the first shot at taking over for Najee Harris. Seven starters return on defense.

Miami sixth-year quarterback D’Eriq King, a run/pass threat, showed well in an early preseason scrimmage and appears healthy after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus injury in a 37-34 Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

The Hurricanes gave up 42, 62 and 37 points in their three 2020 losses, the first two to Clemson and North Carolina, and will face an Alabama team that is always prepared for the national stage. 

The pick: Alabama -19.5

No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Line: Iowa -3.5, 45.5 total

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will be the most explosive player on the field, and he is expected to start against the Hawkeyes after suffering a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November that limited his fall work. 

Penix is 10-2 as a starter while playing around injuries in his last three seasons, and he stepped into the spotlight with a 491-yard, five-touchdown outing in a 42-35 loss at Ohio State last year. He was injured the following week.

Iowa plays a solid, workmanlike game and is expected to rely on running back Tyler Goodson. Quarterback Spencer Petras improved in his first year as a starter last season.

The Hawkeyes have won seven of the last eight in the series, although the teams do not meet every year because they are in different Big Ten divisions. Iowa won the last matchup, 42-16 in Bloomington in 2018, but that was another lifetime in Indiana football.

Indiana was 6-2, 7-1 ATS last season, failing to cover only as a 7.5-point favorite in a 26-20 Outback Bowl victory over Ole Miss. The Hawkeyes won the final six games of 2020 to finish 6-2, 5-2-1 ATS. 

The pick: Indiana +3.5

No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX

Line: Texas -8.5, 58.5 total

Coach Steve Sarkisian will make his pressurized Texas debut in a can’t-win scenario. The Longhorns are expected to win here to justify all the ballyhoo that surrounded Sarkisian’s hiring away from Alabama after previous head coaching stops Pac-12 Washington at USC.

The trouble here is, Louisiana is good, and the Ragin’ Cajuns view this matchup as the kind of statement game that only comes around once a year. 

The Cajuns rolled Iowa State 31-14 in the 2020 season opener in Ames, Iowa, and veteran quarterback Levi Lewis is back for his third year as a starter. Texas halfback Bijan Robinson averaged 8.2 yards per carry and had 703 rushing yards last season after missing early time because of a back injury.

The pick: Louisiana +8.5

No. 2 Oklahoma vs. Tulane

Saturday, Noon ET, ABC

Line: Oklahoma -31.5, 67.5 total

Sooners’ sophomore quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler begins building his resume in a game originally scheduled to be played in New Orleans before Hurricane Ida got in the way.

The pick: Oklahoma -31.5.

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