College Football Week Zero Best Bets (2021)

Aug 26, 2021 - 12:20 PM

Depending on who you ask, the official start of the college football season is next week, when we have five ranked vs. ranked matchups to whet our appetites. Do not tell that to avid sports bettors, who are itching to get a head start and build their bankrolls with five games this weekend to kick off the season.

Last season, we had tremendous success in our weekly picks column, culminating the season the right way with a 3-0 record on the conference championships. After hitting on 61.4% of our plays for +9.5 units, we are back with our weekly picks that will be published every Thursday morning to help guide you through the entire season.

Though this weekend’s matchups are not the most high-profile that we will see this season, we have done the research to get you a leg up.

Here are my top two plays for Week Zero in college football.

Best Bets for Week Zero: College Football

(Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
Last Season: 35-22 (+9.5 units)
YTD: 0-0

Nebraska (-7) vs. Illinois: Illinois Team Total Over/Under (23.5)

Our inaugural pick of the season comes from the Big Ten battle between Nebraska and Illinois. The Cornhuskers at one point were 11.5-point favorites a couple of months ago, but oddsmakers shortened their odds considerably when news broke that Nebraska was under NCAA investigation for improper use of analysts last season.

While Nebraska’s new odds are debatable from a spread perspective, one aspect of this game that cannot be overlooked is the continuity of each team’s coaching staff. Nebraska is entering its fourth year under head coach Scott Frost, while Illinois is in the first year of the Bret Bielema era after parting ways with Lovie Smith at the end of last season. Bielema went 68-24 in his tenure at Wisconsin, but it will take time to get his new Big Ten program rolling under his system.

Nebraska lost 41-23 at home to Illinois last year as 16.5 point favorites. In what is likely a make-or-break year for Frost after starting his tenure as Cornhusker head coach with a 12-20 record, you can bet he will have his guys fired up for payback in this road opener. Nebraska returns 17 starters (seven offense, ten defense). The ten defensive starters will look to atone for the 490 yards they surrendered in last year’s defeat. Their defensive performance was not great in its own right, but their offense put them in many vulnerable situations after committing five turnovers which gifted the Illini offense plenty of short fields.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez returning for his fourth year under Frost’s system also should help their defense, as we look for him to be comfortable and control time of possession. Nebraska has racked up at least 600 yards in two of their last three games against Illinois, and Martinez will build off last year’s career-high 71.5% completion percentage to keep the Illini off the field. Bielema, in addition, should employ a conservative game plan in his first game as Illinois coach, as he will put his offensive line to the test to win the battle of the trenches early.

Illinois is 1-4 ATS in their last five home games and is 1-5 ATS in their previous six August games. However, instead of jumping on Nebraska -7, the safer play is not to expect many points from the Illini offense.

PICK: Illinois Team Total UNDER 23.5 (-105)

Hawaii vs. UCLA (-17)

Our second wager to kick off the college football season also backs a coach of a major conference team that is on the hot seat entering the season. UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is 10-21 in his three seasons at the helm, the worst three-year stretch of Bruins football since the 1920s. The Bruins have not started well under Kelly, as they are 0-3 SU and ATS in his three season-openers and 0-5 ATS in their last five dating back to the pre-Kelly era. Kelly and his coaching staff likely used that fact as great motivation in the offseason as they get set to host an inferior Hawaii team that they should have their way with.

UCLA’s coaching staff underwent many changes in the offseason. However, none may have a more significant impact than the hire of Ryan Gunderson as quarterbacks coach to replace the retired Dana Bible. Gunderson led San Diego State to one of its best seasons in school history in 2020 and will likely get the most out of returning quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

Thompson-Robinson engineers a UCLA offense that returns ten starters. They scored at least 34 points in five of their seven games last season. Thompson-Robinson faces a Hawaii defense that allowed 27.6 PPG last year (54th in the country), but one that allowed 31+ points in each of their three losses to end the regular season. Meanwhile, Hawaii’s usually high-powered offense only averaged 13.7 PPG over their last three games. They face a Bruins defense that returns 84% of the production from a unit that ranked 30th against the run last season.

When wagering on UCLA, one must worry about the look-ahead factor to next week’s showdown with LSU. However, given that coach Kelly’s teams have struggled so much in their past three openers, we expect a spirited Bruins squad to be firing on all cylinders in advance of their high-profile matchup. UCLA was picked to finish fourth in their division in the PAC-12 this season but will outclass this Rainbow Warriors team that is not as explosive as those of past years.

PICK: UCLA -17 (-110)

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Mike Spector is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeSpector01.

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