College Football Week 1 Saturday Best Bets
North Carolina Tar Heels at Appalachian State Mountaineers
Game Info: 12:00 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: ESPNU
Drake Maye debuted as the new North Carolina starting quarterback in Week 0, and he threw for five touchdowns as part of a 56-point performance from the Tar Heels. However, the North Carolina defense that was supposed to be much improved allowed an FCS team in Florida A&M to march up and down the field for much of the game.
This week, UNC has a much bigger test for its defense after allowing Florida A&M to generate over 5.0 yards per play. Appalachian State brings back Chase Brice, who threw for 3,337 yards and 27 touchdowns as a freshman, and running backs Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples who combined for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021.
App State lost D’Marco Jackson, the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, as part of an exodus of defensive talent that landed a -5 TARP grade, tied for the lowest in the FBS. The Mountaineers’ transitioning defense could struggle to keep pace with Maye and potential All-American wide receiver Josh Downs.
Given the state of each of these teams’ defenses, I’m surprised the points total isn’t set higher for this game. When these teams last met in 2019, it was a 34-31 win for App State. This game is a true pick’em, but I’m seeing real value in betting the over. It’s not entirely inconceivable that these teams could hit 60 combined points by the third quarter.
Best Bet: over 55.5 points (bet to 58.5)
Cincinnati Bearcats at Arkansas Razorbacks
Game Info: 3:30 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: ESPN
Cincinnati is coming off a breakthrough season that saw the program earn a College Football Playoff berth, but it lost several key pieces this offseason. The losses include the starting quarterback, starting running back, top wide receiver, top two defensive linemen, and two All-Americans in the secondary. Yikes.
However, Arkansas also has key losses to reconcile with. The Razorbacks’ defense returns just four starters, and it lost two of its three 100+ tackle players and only returns one defensive lineman. Bumper Pool returns as one of the SEC’s best all-around linebackers.
That creates issues against a Cincinnati offensive line that returns all five starters and ranked 15th in rushing success rate in 2021. Ryan Montgomery steps into the starting running back role, and there are high hopes for him after he averaged 6.8 YPC in limited action in 2021.
The Razorbacks’ KJ Jefferson led the team in rushing last year, and the team ran the ball 63% of the time. Jadon Hasselwood Jr. replaces Treylon Burks as the WR1, but so much of Burks’s production was schemed YAC and Hasselwood Jr. doesn’t possess the same creativity or speed. Including Burks, Arkansas lost four of its top five pass-catchers.
Cincinnati may have lost key pieces in the front seven, but former four-star Ohio State linebacker Noah Potter entered the fold and the Bearcats allowed just 3.7 yards per attempt last year as they had the 16th-highest graded run defense in the FBS per PFF. Deshawn Pace also returns after earning all-star honors.
The true weakness of the Cincinnati defense is the secondary, but I don’t trust KJ Jefferson to exploit it with his inconsistent downfield passing. I expect Cincinnati to win at the lines of scrimmage on both sides, and I believe Luke Fickell will have his team ready to compete at an elite level once again. Give me the points on the Bearcats here – I wouldn’t be shocked if this is an upset win.
Best Bet: Cincinnati +6.5 (bet to +4.5)
Houston Cougars at UTSA Roadrunners
Game Info: 3:30 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: CBSSN
I was surprised that this line opened at Houston -6 rather than something like -10, and I’m even more surprised that it has been bought down to -4 on most books. UTSA is coming off an impressive 12-2 season, but it’s one of the worst-rated teams via TARP with key losses on both sides of the ball.
Sincere McCormick, who had 4,438 yards from scrimmage and 35 total touchdowns through three seasons at UTSA, left for the NFL. Houston’s run defense ranked ninth in EPA per play last season, and it returns most of its key pieces. The Cougars’ defense also led the country in third down stops.
Tariq Woolen is another notable departure from UTSA, leaving the secondary in a tough spot with lots of young starters. Overall, the UTSA defense returned just five starters from last year, and that puts them in a difficult position against Clayton Thune, who had 39 passing touchdowns, and Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, who had 90 catches and 12 touchdowns.
The Houston offensive line also returned three starters and added former four-star Texas recruit right tackle Tyler Johnson. UTSA’s pass-rush returns some solid talent, but I give Houston a significant edge in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
The Roadrunners return their three leading tacklers from last season, and the Houston run game should be productive behind an elite offensive line, even with Alton McCaskill missing the season to a torn ACL.
While Oregon-Georgia and Ohio State-Notre Dame garner all of the national headlines, this should quietly be one of the most entertaining games of the day. Houston should be closer to a ten-point favorite for me, and I’m comfortable betting their side all the way back to the original number despite what the market is indicating.
Best Bet: Houston -4 (bet to -6)
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at James Madison Dukes
Game Info: 6:00 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: ESPN+
The Sun Belt added four new teams this season, including James Madison from the FCS. The Dukes have been one of the most successful teams in the FCS in recent years with an 18-1 record in the three-year Curt Cignetti era. However, James Madison has significant losses on both sides of the ball to overcome.
The Dukes had the top offense in the CAA last year, but they lost CAA Offensive Player of the Year Cole Johnson, as well as three of their top four wide receivers. The defense also lost significant players at all three levels, including the team’s top two leading tacklers and leading pass-rusher.
Middle Tennessee went 7-6 last season and won three of its final four games. Chase Cunningham returns at quarterback after a very strong start to the year in which he threw for 16 touchdowns to just three interceptions through eight games prior to an injury. Cunningham will help elevate an offense that returns just four other starters.
The Blue Raiders led C-USA in tackles for loss and led the country with 32 takeaways. They’re likely set to experience regression in both counts due to the losses of the team’s top four tacklers and two starters in the secondary. However, all four starters return along the defensive line, including all-star pass-rusher Jordan Ferguson.
I had the under on the win totals for both of these programs, and I’m not particularly bullish on either team this season. However, I believe this line is mispriced given James Madison’s lack of a clear starting quarterback as it makes the jump to the FBS.
I certainly won’t have this game circled on my watch list for Saturday, but I’m taking the points on the team with an exciting starting quarterback, FBS-level experience, and a significantly higher FPI ranking.
Best Bet: Middle Tennessee +6 (bet to +4.5)
SMU Mustangs at North Texas Mean Green
Game Info: 7:30 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: CBSSN
So far so good for North Texas who came into the year with one of the highest offensive TARP ratings in the country. The Mean Green trounced UTEP by a final score of 31-13 as Austin Aune threw for three touchdowns. North Texas is ranked 22nd in the country in returning production, sixth on offense, and that showed last week.
Even after last week’s win, North Texas is ranked just 83rd in FPI compared to 52nd for SMU. However, there are reasons to back them in this game. SMU is expected to have an improved rushing offense with the addition of Camar Wheaton, a former five-star Alabama RB recruit, but North Texas ranked 15th in rushing defense EPA last year.
Aune should have the advantage against what was a terrible SMU pass defense last season – the Mustangs ranked 116th in EPA per passing play allowed and didn’t do much to resolve the secondary over the offseason. With a deep receiving corps and a solid offensive line, expect North Texas’s passing offense to be able to put up points.
However, the Mean Green pass defense could be in trouble against Tanner Mordecai, who had 3,600 yards and 39 touchdowns in an all-star season in 2021. The departure of the Murphy brothers was significant as Grayson and Gabriel combined for 15.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. While SMU lost some of its top receivers, Rashee Rice returns after a 670-yard season alongside some solid transfer additions.
In what I’m expecting to be a shootout between two mid-major teams, I wouldn’t make this anything more than a touchdown in SMU’s favor given their defensive limitations and overall volatility. I wouldn’t bet the Mean Green to win, but I’m backing Austin Aune as a home underdog at this price.
Best Bet: North Texas +11 (bet to +10)
Louisville Cardinals at Syracuse Orange
Game Info: 8:00 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: ACCN
Both of these ACC teams have star power on offense with Louisville’s Malik Cunningham and Syracuse’s Sean Tucker set to be among the most fun players to watch in the country. However, the Cardinals have won the last three games in this series, all since Scott Satterfield took over, by a combined margin of 90 points. The sportsbooks believe the Orange can turn the tides this week.
The Cardinals’ offense scored 31.6 points per game last year as Cunningham led Power Five quarterbacks in rushing yards (1,142) and touchdowns (20). In the game against Syracuse, he scored five total touchdowns and led the offense to a rate of over seven yards per play. He has 13 total touchdowns to just one interception in three starts against Cuse.
Since that game, Syracuse lost all five of its top defensive line contributors from last season, putting them in a tough spot against what should be an improved Louisville rushing offense with the addition of RB Tiyon Evans from Tennessee. Cuse’s D-line finished 89th in run stuff rate last year, so it’s in trouble.
The Syracuse offense surrounds Sean Tucker, who led the ACC with 1,515 rushing yards, and an offensive line that returns four of five starters. Louisville ranked 100th in defensive line yards, but I believe their front seven is being underrated with stout edges YaYa Diaby and Yassir Abdualla.
In addition, the market hasn’t accounted for former Arizona State transfer Jermayne Lole, PFF’s third-highest defensive lineman in the Power Five in 2020 who missed last season with a triceps injury. The secondary also added four new defensive backs in the transfer portal.
I’m very comfortable betting on the recent series history to continue here with Malik Cunningham producing another fireworks display on offense for the Cardinals as they trounce their ACC rival once again.
Best Bets: Louisville -4 (bet to -6.5)
Boise State Broncos at Oregon State Beavers
Game Info: 10:30 PM EST, 9/3/22, Coverage: ESPN
Oregon State is coming off a 7-6 season, its first winning record since 2013, but it suffered some significant losses this offseason. Leading rusher B.J. Baylor is gone after registering 1,337 yards last year. The run game was elite last year behind an offensive line that led the FBS in line yards, but the losses of Nous Keobounnam and All-Pac 12 center Nathan Eldridge will damage that unit.
The Beavers’ offensive line should be fine in time, but the matchup this week is brutal. Boise State returns its entire defensive line and three of its top four linebackers. The Broncos’ front seven ranked top-30 in rushing success rate allowed, stuff rate, and power success rate allowed, so it should snuff out any Oregon State rushing offense.
Boise State’s defense was among the best in the secondary against the pass, as well – the Broncos ranked 25th in passing success rate allowed and return their entire secondary. Overall, the defense ranked 21st in success rate allowed and 23rd in finishing drives. With Andy Avalos back as the defensive coordinator, hardly anything changes on that side of the ball.
When the Broncos’ offense is on the field, they will rely on Hank Bachmeier, a quietly excellent quarterback last season who returns after grading as the ninth-best quarterback in the Group of Five per PFF. While he lost leading receiver Khalil Shakir, he should be even better in his second year in Tim Plough’s system.
The Boise State run game should also be excellent with George Holani returning behind an offensive line that has a combined 86 starts and features two All-Mountain West players. Oregon State’s defense was terrible last year as it ranked 95th in EPA/play allowed and 99th in havoc. With leader Avery Roberts gone and a -5 TARP rating, it could be even worse to start the year.
The line for this game has been bet down significantly since opening at -4 for Oregon State. At the time that I’m writing this, there are still some lines of 3 out there. However, if you can’t get that number, I’m fine just taking the Broncos on the Moneyline. Boise State should be favored in this game, and they are perhaps my favorite bet of the week.
Best Bet: Boise State +3 or ML