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College Football Betting Picks for Week Zero (8/28/2021)

After a shorter-than-usual hiatus, thanks to the FCS' spring season, college football has returned. This week, and every week, we will analyze some of college football's best available money-line and over/under bets on the board.

Last season's record for our expert betting picks were 32-16, finishing with a 2-1 split on the January 1 bowl games. We'll monitor our progress this year in the hopes of reaching loftier heights in 2021.

This week brings the first games for the ACC and Big 12 conferences in this 2020 fall college football season. Without further ado, here are some of my favorite betting picks for Week Zero of the 2021 college football season.

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Nebraska at Illinois (+7)

O/U: 55

It does not get much more exciting than a Big Ten conference matchup to kick off the 2021 college football season. Nebraska enters the season in a bit of a tumultuous situation, with head coach Scott Frost under investigation for allegedly skirting NCAA practice limits by having analysts and other assistants hold off-campus informal practices. These alleged practices did not help the Cornhuskers much last year, as they struggled to a lousy 3-5 record and are just 12-20 in Frost's three seasons. To right the ship, quarterback Adrian Martinez has to play more like the promising freshman 2018 campaign which feels like distant history. Martinez's top receiver from 2020, Wan'Dale Robinson, jumped ship for Kentucky, which will leave a vacuum of targets to be scooped up by tight end Austin Allen (18 receptions), speedy sophomore receiver Zavier Betts (12 receptions) and Montana transfer receiver Samori Toure. The inconsistent offense, paired with a defense that allowed 29.4 points per game and gave up 41 points to Illinois last season, must be better if Nebraska has any hopes of reaching their lofty goals this year.

Bret Bielema, the one-time coach at both Wisconsin and Arkansas, returned to the Big Ten West division when he was hired to replace Lovie Smith this offseason. Smith had gotten Illinois to its first bowl game since 2014, but the 2019 Redbox Bowl loss to California was not enough to keep his job. Last year's Fighting Illini squad experienced a rollercoaster of outcomes, with several blowout losses sandwiching a two-game stretch with road wins over Rutgers and Nebraska. Both the offense and defense rated poorly, 112th and 97th by points for and points against, respectively, in 2020. Luckily, change is coming to Champaign, yet with consistency and experience built from the prior regime. The Illini return 88 career starts from their offensive linemen, and have 9 starters back on both offense and defense. Quarterback Brandon Peters, who transferred in from Michigan in 2019, has been a difference-maker when healthy, but missed large chunks of last season with COVID-19 and other related protocol absences. With Peters back in the fold, alongside leading tackler Jake Hansen back on the other side of the football, there should be improvement to this year's Illinois squad even if it doesn't show up in the win-loss column.

Nebraska ended last year with a 4-0 run in favor of the under. For years now, highly-rated recruiting classes and institutional hype have been pumping Nebraska as a top-25 team, but the dust is starting to settle on Scott Frost's tenure. He's a good coach, as evidenced by his undefeated "championship" season with the UCF Golden Knights in 2017, but he might be in over his head in the Big Ten. Bettors should be skeptical of both teams' middling offenses until otherwise proven. A small wager on Illinois on the money line (+200) might also be in the cards.

Pick: Under 55 / Illinois ML +200

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Texas-El Paso (UTEP) at New Mexico State (+10.5)

O/U: 56

Dana Dimel has undoubtedly endured severe struggles in El Paso, to the tune of a 5-27 record, with 3 of those victories coming in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Last year's wins, over Stephen F Austin, Abilene Christian and Louisiana-Monroe, are unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of many, but there are signs of life finally in the otherwise forgotten Miners' program. With seven returning offensive linemen with starting experience, and promising redshirt freshman running back Deion Hankins back this season, expectations for improvement are in place. All eleven offensive starters, including quarterback Gavin Hardison, are back for coach Dimel's squad, which should see a boost from familiarity. The defense, led by coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto, allowed 31 points per game last season, but gets eight starters back including promising sophomore defensive end Praise Amaewhule, who just might have an NFL future and notched 5.5 sacks, while also knocking down eight passes at the line of scrimmage last season. The team still has a long way to go, but it does seem like Dimel's core is finally starting to turn the corner.

Amazingly, New Mexico State head coach Doug Martin enters his ninth year ahead of the program. With a record of 23-64, only one bowl appearance, and little to no progress being made, the fact that he can find Las Cruces, New Mexico, on a map might be why he still has the job. The Aggies did play two games in the spring, splitting the games against FCS opponents Dixie State and Tarleton State in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Jonah Johnson was picked off three times in an embarrassing 43-17 loss to Tarleton State, who was in their first year of FCS football stepping up from Division II. Fellow Division I FCS newcomer Dixie State, meanwhile, would have toppled the Aggies if it weren't for a drive down the field to win the game with less than a minute remaining by freshman quarterback Weston Eget. While Johnson and Eget are mired in a battle for the starting job, with the game just a few days away, neither quarterback can fix the myriad of other problems for this program. Located in a relatively remote location, with little access to recruiting tools and no conference affiliation, New Mexico State is unlikely to get out of this losing spiral anytime soon unless they face the fact that they'd be better off reclassifying down to FCS.

It was wise for UTEP to schedule such an easy opponent in week zero to boost morale and give the team some hope in what could be a trying year for the Miners. The Miners did show some promise in 2020, are recruiting better, and have a conference affiliation to lean on. In an alternate timeline, New Mexico State might be able to beat teams not named UMass or UConn, but sadly, that's not the timeline that we are in. It would be a surprise to see UTEP gain bowl eligibility this year, but expecting a couple of wins and not embarrassing themselves in conference play might be within the realm of possibilities this season.

Pick: Under 56


Hawaii at Univ. of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) (-18)

O/U: 68

Coach Todd Graham's Rainbow Warriors had one of the program's better defensive teams of late on the scoreboard, but not by the underlying metrics. The team was outrushed, outpassed, and outpenalized by its opponents, but still only allowed 27.6 points per game, ranking 54th in the nation. With some expected regression, and all eleven starters, the team will likely be back to allowing 30 points per game on a typical night. That's a bad recipe against an offensive juggernaut like UCLA. For the Rainbow Warriors' offense, signal caller Chevan Cordeiro is back after tossing 14 touchdowns to only six interceptions last year. Cordeiro is also a force on the ground, leading the team with 483 rushing yards and seven more scores. All-purpose athlete Calvin Turner is one of the most entertaining and difficult-to-guard players in football, with 60 rushing attempts and 33 receptions in his first year at Hawaii after his previous school (Jacksonville U.) shut down its football program entirely. Graham's high-octane offense is a good fit for Cordeiro gun-slinging style, and I expect Hawaii's offense to be much improved in year two under Graham.

Coach Chip Kelly has plenty of reason to be excited about the 2021 UCLA Bruins, and it all starts with his dynamic dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson ("DTR"). DTR has started the majority of the past three seasons, and had his best statistical season in 2020 on a per-game basis. The young signal-caller stands at a generous 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, but has a rocket arm as evidenced by his near-upset of USC last year. Running back Brittain Brown, a former Duke transfer, catapulted to the top of the depth chart instantly, churning 6.6 yards per carry and five touchdowns in the Bruins' limited seven game schedule. The Bruins' offensive output (35.4 points per game) ranked 20th in the country, but the team still only ended up with a 3-4 record due to touchdown-or-less losses to Colorado, Oregon, USC and Stanford. With ten starters back on both sides of the ball, the expectation is that UCLA can and should compete for the Pac-12 South title with a better defense and by closing out a few of their close games.

Traveling from Hawaii to the mainland didn't hurt or harm the team last year, as Hawaii went 2-2 in their four games away from home with two convincing wins and two convincing losses. The hope for more consistency from this year's team will be on a wait-and-see trial case. In these teams' only-ever matchup, UCLA dominated Hawaii in 2017 by a score of 56-23. While Hawaii should put up more of a fight this year, the talent levels are still not where they need to be on each respective defense which could lead to a lot of points being scored in this one.

Pick: Over 68

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