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Thor Nystrom

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Week 1 CFB Best Bets

Thursday, August 30, 2018


Welcome back to another season of Rotoworld’s weekly college football ATS series! You know the drill. I’ll break down my 10 favorite bets of the week, and I'll toss you a few more out the door.

Handicapping isn’t just about breaking down matchups. It’s also about knowing yourself — identifying your biases, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and instilling in yourself the discipline to only put your money at risk if you feel you have an advantage. Last season, I was brutal out of the gate — I had a rough first two weeks — and battled back to hit almost 54% ATS on the year. This year, I’ll be more conservative with my own action in the early-going as a result. I also made tweaks to my process that will hopefully lead to a quicker start. Adjustments, fluidity and discipline are the name of the game.

With all that said…

***

Tulane +7 vs. Wake Forest (Thursday)

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

I’ve got a double-barrel gut feeling on this game: Tulane is a “buy” team for me heading into Year 3 of the Willie Fritz Era, while Wake Forest is a “sell” team.

Wake Forest was better than you might remember last season, finishing 8-5. They got there despite the defense regressing to 28.3 ppg allowed (from 22.2 in 2016). The team was built around the offense (No. 22 S&P+), but specifically the hyper-efficient passing offense, which stunningly finished No. 2 S&P+.

Here’s my deal with Wake Forest. QB John Wolford, probably the team’s MVP last year, is gone. And his backup and heir QB Kendall Hinton is suspended for the first three games. So Wake Forest will start true freshman Sam Hartman. Hartman will not benefit from working with WR2 Tabari Hines (who transferred to Oregon) or TE1 Cam Serigne (who graduated). All of which is to say that the team’s greatest strength has taken a colossal shot — the passing offense is almost assuredly going to crash back to earth this year.

And that’s an issue because the defense isn’t likely to improve much with only six starters back. Two of the departed starters were arguably the team’s most talented players in DE Duke Ejiofor and S Jessie Bates. Four members of the starting front seven are new, and that may come into play against Tulane’s ground-and-pound attack.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Fritz’s dynamic triple-option attack is entering the pivotal Year 3, when enormous scheme shifts like the one Tulane underwent from its previous conservative pro-style begin to pay dividends. And the Green Wave have nine returning starters on offense! This offense could be dangerous.

For Fritz and Tulane, this is an enormous game. The school hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2013, and 2018 is being viewed as the year the Green Wave return. Beating a Power 5 opponent like Wake Forest in a Thursday night opener at home on national television (okay, CBS Sports Network!) would be the defining win of Fritz’s tenure, and also greatly improve the team’s odds of going bowling with only one sure loss to come on the schedule (at Ohio State).

 

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Wyoming +1.5 vs. Washington State

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 
I think Wyoming is a better team than Washington State in a vacuum, and they’re getting the Cougars in Laramie. In Wazzu's opener. When Wyoming has already gotten to play a game (a "Week 0" blowout of New Mexico State). Thrilled to catch a stray point-plus on the Cowboys in this spot.

The post-Josh Allen Cowboys may be better than the Josh Allen-era Cowboys. That isn’t a referendum on Allen, it’s an acknowledgement of fact: Wyoming finished No. 119 S&P+ offensively last fall with Allen. Wyoming is going to finish as better than the 12th-worst offense in the country this year. I promise. It’s going to be better. Maybe not by a lot. But at least by a little.

Wyoming’s offense has three things going for it outside of the whole “it can’t get worse” thing: 1.) Nine starters return, 2.) Four starting OL return, and that unit looked good in Saturday’s win over NMSU, and, 3.) Wyoming finally has found its Brian Hill replacement. Last year’s offensive struggles were more on the struggling OL and non-existent running game than they were on Allen (though everyone deserved a bit of blame). RB Nico Evans, who was buried behind a bunch of nobodies on the depth chart last year (11 carries total), looked like a potential star against the Aggies last week (190 yards, two TD).

But it's the defense that makes the Cowboys a New Year’s Six bowl contender. That unit is nasty nasty nasty nasty. Not G5 nasty. National nasty. It would look at home in the SEC. Wyoming’s D finished No. 7 S&P+ last year, and it returns eight starters — including future NFL defenders DE Carl Granderson, DT Youhanna Ghaifan and S Andrew Wingard.

Like Wyoming, Wazzu was built around its defense last year (No. 29 S&P+). That unit lost five starters, including havoc-wreaking DL Hercules Mata’afa. Not included in that number is the loss of ace DC Alex Grinch. Grinch’s last Wazzu defense returned nine starters. With only six back and the architect gone, you can expect regression.


But its the offense that really has us soured on Wazzu. The Cougs ranked a lowly No. 62 S&P+ offensively last fall, and that unit got gutted by defections over the winter. Seven starters are gone, including NFL QB Luke Falk and his top two receivers.

Wazzu has still not decided on a quarterback; its first depth chart listed three QBs with “OR” designations between them. Everyone, including us, expects Gardner Minshew to start against Wyoming. I have to ask: Are we sure he’s any good? Minshew was unable to outright win the starting job in each of the past two years at lowly ECU. His stat line doesn't suggest a savior.

Wazzu has had trouble in the early going the past few years. They needed three OTs to put away Boise State in Week 2 last year, they lost to Eastern Washington as 27.5-point favorites in the 2016 opener (they lost to Boise State the next week). In 2015, Wazzu lost to Portland State as 30-point favorites in the opener, and in 2014, they lost to Rutgers and Nevada in the first two weeks as small favorites.

Traveling to Laramie in the opener to take on this kind of defense with what may be Mike Leach’s worst roster since 2014 (3-9) seems like a recipe for another early-season disappointment. Meanwhile, for Craig Bohl and crew, an upset here would get the national media to sound the "New Year's Six darkhorse" alarm bells. Expect Wyoming to get it done.

Florida Atlantic +21 at Oklahoma

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

I’ve been looking forward to this game since last January, when post-title game sadness had me digging into 2018 opening-week matchups.


FAU is riding a 10-game winning streak and hasn’t lost since dropped a three-point decision to Buffalo last September. Because neither team’s upward trajectory had yet begun, we didn’t realize at the time that we were watching a marquee G5 showdown. Two weeks prior to that game, FAU, which was coming off getting its butt kicked by Navy in the opener, lost 31-14 in Madison to Wisconsin as 33.5-point underdogs. And again: That was before FAU took off, and that was to a team that nearly made the Playoff.

Now, the Owls are catching 21 points in Norman. Let me put it this way: This Oklahoma team would not be favored against last year’s Wisconsin team on a neutral field. And this September's FAU team is a heck of a lot better than last September's FAU team.

This Sooners team is quite different than last year’s Playoff squad. Heisman winner and program face Baker Mayfield is gone, of course, and Oklahoma lost a total of 10 starters, five on each side of the ball. I’m high on QB Kyler Murray from a fantasy (read: projected statistical) perspective, but he remains unproven. At the very least, the offense is going to undergo heavy changes to facilitate a shift from one of the best collegiate pocket passers we’ve ever seen to an unorthodox dual-threat quarterback like Murray.

Like him or not, Mayfield was an obvious leader and the catalyst of last year’s squad. Murray may well have leadership qualities, but he feels more like a mercenary than a top general now that he’s a top-10 MLB pick whose professional contract stipulates no more football post-2018.

Even if the offense hums out of the gate, OU’s defense still has a long way to go. It was a bottom-30 unit last year, and it lost its best player to the NFL. If the cracks from last year remain, FAU is going to exploit them.

The Owls return only five starters on offense, but I’m not overly concerned about that because some of the departed starters have been replaced by clear upgrades. Take quarterback, where mediocre game manager Jason Driskel retired, leaving the gig to former FSU four-star QB D’Andre Johnson (or Rafe Peavey or former Oklahoma four-star Chris Robison — we don't know which of the three will start yet, but I can promise you they’ll be an upgrade). At receiver, former West Virginia WR Jovan Durante is eligible for the first time.

And on defense, FAU returns 10 starters. That veteran-led unit isn’t likely to trampled over, which is basically what will be required for FAU to not cover this spread. Because the Owls are going to get their points. Motor Singletary will see to that.

 

Boston College -18 vs. UMass

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

This line confused me in a way that almost scared me off betting it. How are we able to buy the Eagles here without laying three touchdowns (or more)? It really seems like this line was made for a BC-UMass game from year's past, a bygone era when Boston College could only play defense.


Like, you know, 2014. That year, Boston College was a 17-point favorite to open the season at UMass. The Eagles won that game 30-7. UMass may be a bit better now than they were then, but we’re talking by degrees — UMass went 3-9 that year, while they finished last season 4-8.

Boston College, meanwhile, is clearly better now than they were in 2014 (they also get to play host for this one). Last year, the Eagles flipped on the afterburners after deciding to build the offense around jackhammer true freshman RB AJ Dillon, who went on to rush for more than 1,5000 yards. BC won five of its last six regular games, four of them by more than 18 points (including versus Florida State, Virginia and Syracuse).

Ten starters return on offense. BC also gets QB Anthony Brown back from injury. And they’ve got two superstars on defense in DE Zach Allen and S Lukas Denis. Boston College is an ascending ACC player while UMass hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2010.

The Minutemen can play some offense — RB Marquis Young has been a mainstay, and WR Andy Isabella is a keeper — but their defense is not up to the task of slowing Dillon. UMass’ run defense has been terrible for several years now, and the team returns only six defensive starters on a unit that gave up more than 31 ppg last year.

 

Appalachian State +24 at Penn State

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

Power rankings don’t suggest that this is a bad number — Brad Powers’ actually suggest that this line could even be closer to PSU -25 or -26 — but my gut is telling me that its bloated. And in a Week 1 scenario, I have to trust my read.

I think Penn State enters the season a tad overrated. The Nittany Lions return only 10 starters, including just three on defense. The cast of difference-makers who departed Happy Valley over the winter is long: RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki, WR DaeSean Hamilton, LB Jason Cabinda, S Troy Apke, S Marcus Allen, CB Christian Campbell and CB Grant Haley, to name the most prominent.

That’s a ton! PSU falls to No. 103 on Phil Steele’s Experience Chart. And we haven't even mentioned what might be the biggest loss of them all. Innovative OC Joe Moorhead, who spearheaded Penn State’s return to prominence, is now Mississippi State’s head coach. Though new OC Ricky Rahne intends to runs a similar offense, losing the architect of one of college football’s most explosive offenses is a blow, perhaps even a devastating one.

The Nittany Lions may well still turn out to be a Big 10 contender. Maybe they figure things out and stay on the 11-win clip they’ve established the past two years. But it would be downright stunning if they opened the season as the same juggernaut we came to know and love over the past two seasons.

All of which makes Appy State a live dog in the opener. Now, to be fair, the Mountaineers only return 11 starters themselves, and they lost a four-year starting quarterback. But the ground-heavy offense returns RB Jalin Moore and the defense has a shutdown CB in Clifton Duck, which helps in this matchup, as you’d assume PSU QB Trace McSorley would like to lean on WR Juwan Johnson with so many unfamiliar faces surrounding him at the skill positions.

Appalachian State opened last season at Georgia as 14-point underdogs. They didn’t cover, but they did keep it within 24 — UGA wont 31-10. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that the Bulldogs were headed to the national title game. The year before, Appy State nearly upset Tennessee in the opener. If ASU QB Zac Thomas proves up for the moment in his first collegiate start and PSU struggles to acclimate to all its losses early, the Mountaineers could similarly put a scare into the Nits.


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Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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