Playing the Small Slate to Your Advantage

The 2021 college football season will kickoff after an unbearably long offseason wait at noon (all times listed are Central) with Illinois taking on Nebraska at home and three more FBS vs FBS games over the rest of this amuse-bouche of a Saturday. Three of the four games are nationally televised so if you are determined to watch your wager play out, staying away from UTEP-NMSU is all it will take.

It must be said that Week Zero is the week most tilted against the bettor as the typical advantage of a wide array of games to pick and choose spots is not at our disposal. The second element generally working against the player is the total lack of on-field information, but that is also an issue in Week One so not entirely unique to this week. You can study fall camp soundbites and depth charts all you want, we don’t truly know what a team will look like until the opening kickoff. One way to try and leverage the lack of information in weeks zero and one is to take on longer odds bets because the disparity between the spread and final result is likely to be larger given the less informed spread/total. In general, a 2-touchdown underdog should be more likely to win in Week Zero than Week Ten because the number was softer and more speculative. If you can find alternate lines for favorites (eg. 18 point favorite UCLA -24 but +180 odds) you can capitalize on this the other way. The soft lines also make staying away from teasers a smart move in the first couple weeks, if not all season, since college football is already the worst sport for them.

Nebraska -7 (-105) at Illinois, o/u 54.5, ML -265/+210 (all lines from PointsBet); Noon on Fox

I think the play is Nebraska -7. It’s tempting to flirt with the Illinois moneyline at home given the above advice on wide variations from initial game spreads, but I simply don’t see my alma mater’s defense as good enough to hold up over 60 minutes in Bielema’s opening game. The problem for Illinois is that their strength, the offensive line, is met with Nebraska’s strength in a strong front 7. If those strengths cancel each other out to an extent, I don’t think Illinois is strong enough at receiver or on defense to keep this a one-possession game. This isn’t to say Nebraska has turned the corner and 2021 will be a breakout year. More to the point, the last time Frost’s team came to Champaign in 2019, they nearly put up 700 yds of offense. Nebraska only won 42-38, but that was with a -3 turnover margin, they outgained Illinois by 386 yds. That type of disparity is not going to keep you in games, and certainly not without a Lovie Smith turnover touch. Simply put, it doesn’t take that great a team to beat Illinois by 8 or more.

Hawaii at UCLA -17.5, o/u 68.5, ML +600/-875; 2:30PM on ESPN

Chip Kelly finally got the feeling of being over .500 at UCLA when they peaked at 3-2 before losing their last two of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, but he comes into Saturday still looking to win his first opener for the Bruins in try number 4. In his way is Hawaii led by former Pac-12 head coach Todd Graham in his second year at the school. Despite one of the two coaches having been in the Pac-12 every one of the last 12 years, they only overlapped in 2012, with Kelly’s Marriota-led Ducks blowing out ASU in Tempe. The bet that sticks out to me in this one is the under 68.5 (-115). Yes, college football is seemingly higher scoring in each given year, and these aren’t B1G West teams, but 68.5 is a lot, especially when the spread is >2 possessions and a score in the last two minutes is less likely. The implied final of 43-25.5 is a little too deferential to UCLA’s offense for me. This match-up features teams ranked 7 (UCLA) and 8 nationally out of 127 FBS teams in returning production percentage, but that cuts both ways, and experienced defenses should be slightly ahead of experienced offenses to start the year. Hawaii is furthermore one further year removed from the ultra-high tempo offense of former coach Nick Rolovich, and one additional year into the mold of their current defensive minded head man Graham. They played well down the stretch last year, and you better believe he has his defense ready to play their best against the conference that last fired him.

Other Games: UConn at Fresno St -27.5 (-115), o/u 63, 1PM CBSSN; UTEP -10 at New Mexico St, o/u 59.5, ML -390/+300.

Enjoy the games, and good luck to all.

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