Friday, Aug. 29, 2014 | 1:11 p.m.
The first weekend of college football annually endangers sports bettors.
Gamblers who have waited months for football to return tend to get carried away and bet too much on too many games. It’s far easier to irreparably damage a bankroll on week 1 than build it to season-making heights.
That’s a tip to keep in mind at the betting windows all across town as the vast majority of the 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams start their seasons this weekend. Taking a measured approach and firing on only the most attractive lines while learning about the teams can pay dividends.
Of course, that’s a piece of inherently hypocritical advice coming in a space that will analyze and pick the 10 biggest college football games of the week against the spread regardless of the betting value or anything else.
That’s the format of college football by the odds for another year. After a late start, I finished 70-66-3 for the year in 2013 picking the 10 biggest games per week and every bowl.
Given the lack of a filter to avoid certain matchups and the unprofitability of betting on every game, it’s a more than acceptable record. But I’ll set out to top it in 2014.
Find the week one betting preview and picks below.
UCLA minus-21.5 at Virginia; over/under: 55.5, 9 a.m. Saturday, ESPN
When these two athletic departments collaborated to schedule this home-and-home series, likely several years ago, it must have looked like an exceptional idea.
In the mid-2000s, both programs fielded similarly middling teams that hadn’t won a conference championship since the Clinton administration. Both schools still haven’t added to their conference trophy cases since “Armageddon” ruled the box office, but everything else is different.
UCLA coach Jim Mora has built the Bruins up ahead of schedule, going 19-8 straight-up and 17-10 against the spread in two seasons. Virginia coach Mike London has torn the Cavaliers with chilling swiftness, posting an 18-31 straight-up and 15-28-5 against the spread record in five seasons.
Last year was a new low for London as Virginia went 2-10 SU, 5-6-1 ATs while finishing 120th in the nation at 4.8 yards per play. The Cavaliers are an obvious member of the “field” in sports books’ future odds to win the national championship, while UCLA is the fifth choice at 10-to-1.
Pick: Under 55.5 points As tempting as it may sound to take more than three touchdowns with a home team to start the season, Virginia’s incompetence is alarming. UCLA should be sluggish traveling to the East Coast, so here’s hoping it takes a while to get going.
Ohio State minus-15.5 vs. Navy; over/under: 55.5, 9 a.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network
A proven prolific quarterback will still start in Saturday’s neutral-site game in Baltimore.
Ohio State’s trendy Heisman pick Braxton Miller may have gone down for the year a week ago with a torn labrum, but Navy’s Keenan Reynolds is doing just fine. In his freshman season last year, Reynolds set the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback when he crossed the plain 31 times.
Reynolds led the Midshipmen to a 7-1 against the spread record in their final eight games, and outright victories in their last five. Navy led the nation in rushing for the first time since 2007.
Ohio State has some defensive questions, but they are all in the secondary. Six out of Ohio State’s front seven return for a unit that ranked 12th in the nation against the run.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is 34-11 against the spread versus non-conference opponents in his career.
Pick: Ohio State minus-15.5 Miller’s replacements who will split snaps, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, are on the Ohio State roster for a reason. They can play.
Arkansas plus-20 at Auburn; over/under: 57.5, 1 p.m. Saturday, SEC Network
Before abandoning the theme of absent quarterbacks, let’s visit the case of Auburn’s Nick Marshall.
During the offseason, the senior acted more like the immature cornerback who got dismissed from Georgia two years ago than the polished rusher who brought Auburn to the national championship last year. Cited for marijuana possession, Marshall will start the Tigers’ opener on the bench as punishment.
The pressure to extend Auburn’s national-best 11 game covering streak will fall on back-up Jeremy Johnson, at least to start. Oddsmakers tried but failed to catch their power ratings up with Auburn’s dream run last year.
The casinos never quite got there, as the Tigers covered plus-10 in their 34-31 loss to Florida State in the BCS National Championship. The team is using “13 seconds better” as their slogan in 2014, a reference to how close they came to a title last season.
Arkansas will need to play about 13 times better than last season when it 0-8 straight-up, 2-6 against the spread versus SEC opposition. The Razorbacks’ 35-17 home loss to the Tigers as 9.5-point underdogs was one of six conference games they lost by double digits.
Pick: Arkansas plus-20 With inflated spreads to start the season, Auburn’s streak isn’t lasting much longer even if it gets out of this one.
Alabama minus-27 vs. West Virginia in Atlanta; over/under: 55.5, 12:30 p.m., ESPN2
Sports books haven’t appreciated the week 1 effectiveness of Alabama in recent years.
On the opening college football weekend, casinos’ greatest concern is getting one of the high-priced elites to fall on the point spread. Public bettors bombard the books with parlays tying together all the best teams, creating significant liability for the house.
Since coach Nick Saban took over the program, the Crimson Tide have been uncooperative. They’ve covered in all seven of their openers under Saban.
Alabama hasn’t lost its first game since a 2001 meeting against UCLA.
Bookmakers must feel some hope that this could be the year Alabama fails to cover the spread with Saban reportedly opting to start his less talented quarterback. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims gets the nod over Florida State transfer and junior Jacob Coker, whom most consider the stronger long-term option.
Pick: Alabama minus-27 Sorry sports books. Power to the people.
Clemson plus-7.5 at Georgia; over/under: 54.5, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
The two teams that meet on the field at Sanford Stadium will look significantly different than the ones who finished last season in the same jerseys.
Clemson loses the bulk of its offensive production and returns only 11 starters. Georgia has 14 starters back, but a solid chunk of them missed the end of the year as part of a swarm of Bulldog injuries in 2013.
The Tigers have earned an unfair reputation for underperforming in big games. In five years under coach Dabo Swinney, however, they are an average 10-11 straight-up and 11-10 against the spread versus ranked opponent.
Georgia’s marks against ranked teams in the same time period, 6-17 straight-up and 7-15-1 against the spread, are far worse.
The Bulldogs tend to start slow, going 7-12-1 against the spread in the first month of the season over the last five years. The Tigers are 11-9 against the spread using the same criteria.
Both those points came to a head in the teams’ season-opening meeting last year, as Clemson upset Georgia 38-35 as 2-point underdogs on its home field.
Pick: Georgia minus-7.5 The Bulldogs outplayed the Tigers last year but committed some costly mistakes, a truth they’ve remembered all summer.
Fresno State plus-22.5 at USC; over/under: 58, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Team captain Josh Shaw fabricated how he suffered two high ankle sprains. Running back Anthony Brown quit the team and called coach Steve Sarkisian a racist. The Trojans continued to recover from two projected defensive starters going down with season-ending injuries.
No, Sarkisian hasn’t enjoyed the ideal week of preparation before a season debut. USC compartmentalized valiantly in last year’s Maaco Bowl Las Vegas, however, by smashing Fresno State 45-20 as 4.5-point favorites amid interim coach Ed Orgeron bailing from town when he wasn’t considered for the job permanently.
The regular season doesn’t guarantee a repeat as USC has covered just once in its last five attempts against Mountain West Conference opponents. Fresno State is also 7-1 against the spread when taking more than 17 points in the non-conference.
Fresno State risks another torching regardless if a pass defense that ranked 119th in the nation last season hasn’t improved.
Pick: Fresno State plus-22.5 Not excited about taking Fresno State, but USC looks like it’s in a vulnerable scheduling spot with an all-important road game at Stanford next week.
Florida State minus-18 vs. Oklahoma State in Dallas; over/under: 63.5, 5 p.m. Saturday, ABC
The opening number on Florida State to win the 2013-2014 national championship at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook was 40-to-1.
That makes the Seminoles one of the most improbable champions of the BCS era when going all the way back to the start of the season. For comparison’s sake, it would be like Stanford or Wisconsin breaking through this season.
But not Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are way back at 200-to-1 in no small part because they bring back an extremely low eight starters from last year’s team.
The consensus is Oklahoma State could blossom into an explosive team behind quarterback J.W. Walsh and running back Desmond Roland. The defense could prove stout with lane-clogger James Castleman up front and clingy corner Kevin Peterson in the backfield.
The Cowboys have only lost by more than 18 points once since 2009, but they also haven’t met a team with the likes of quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, defensive end Mario Edwards and linebacker Terrance Smith.
Pick: Florida State minus-18 Taking enough double-digit favorites to make myself nauseous, but I have an inkling this number will creep up higher before kickoff.
LSU minus-5 vs. Wisconsin in Houston; over/under: 50.5, 6 p.m., ESPN
This is the game of the weekend by almost any measure.
Las Vegas sports books are in agreement, as this is the only matchup between ranked opponents with a spread of a less than a touchdown. Both teams are affirmed national powers even though there’s not much else familiar about them this season.
Wisconsin returns just eight starters, and one of them was incumbent quarterback Joel Stave who has since been shelved for converted safety Tanner McEvoy. Those attaching the sleeper label to LSU for a national championship are referencing freshman running back Leonard Fournette, last year’s top-rated recruit in the country.
It’s ironic when Wisconsin might have the best proven back in the nation on the other sideline in Melvin Gordon, who rushed for nearly eight yards per carry last season.
Pick: Wisconsin plus-5 These teams look so evenly-matched that it would be worth taking more than a field goal on either side.
Utah State plus-6 at Tennessee; over/under: 51.5, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN
The Utah State athletic department started pushing materials advocating Chuckie Keeton for Heisman months ago.
The greatest endorsement the campaign could possibly garner would come Sunday when the Aggies’ golden-boy quarterback makes his comeback from ACL surgery in a game in a time spot that’s virtually its own. One group they won’t need to swing is gamblers.
Those in Las Vegas know all about Keeton after he’s gone 20-7 against the spread as a starter the last three years. The Volunteers themselves haven’t covered that many spreads in the last four seasons combined.
But they almost certainly have the more talented overall team with players like linebacker A.J. Johnson and wide receiver Marquez North. Keeton loses almost every playmaker that was around him last year, as well as some skilled defenders who ensured he got the ball back as quickly as possible.
As the Aggies would proudly proclaim, they have by far the best player in this game but it’s hard to tell whether the gap he creates is wide enough to make up deficiencies elsewhere.
Pick: Tennessee minus-6 Keeton is capable of anything, but playing for the first time in 11 months in front of 102,000 hostile fans with an inexperienced supporting cast sounds daunting.
Miami plus-3.5 at Louisville; over/under: 54, 5 p.m., Monday
It’s only appropriate that the Hurricanes and Cardinals begin the year against each other.
Their seasons wound up thematically analogous in 2013, as both reached the conversation of national-championship contenders at different points despite not playing as well as perceived by Las Vegas standards.
In bettors’ minds, a 5-7-1 against the spread record marred Louisville’s impressive 12-1 straight-up mark. Miami had nearly the same result against the spread at 5-8, and plummeted to 9-4 straight-up by the end of the year.
The two teams finished against each other, as Louisville pasted Miami 36-9 as 5-point favorites in the Champ Sports Bowl. It’s curious that the Cardinals lost 1.5 points on the spread despite going from a neutral site to their home field, though also telling to what they lost.
The hits didn’t stop with graduation, as Louisville’s most explosive offensive threat Dominique Brown came down with a foot injury in camp. Miami’s star Duke Johnson, on the contrary, comes back from a broken ankle last year in this game.
Pick: Louisville minus-3.5 Monitor the Cardinals early in the season as their power-rating might be a little low.