Early Picks for Week 1 College Football

While the 2015 college football season is still months away, it’s never too early to start looking at what’s ahead.  That’s because oddsmakers actually post lines for opening week college football games well before the season starts.  In fact, they have already posted lines for several of the biggest games for Week 1 of the college football season.

I’m going to list the lines for these games.  I’m also going to give my early lean on which way I’d go based on the information I have available at this point.  Keep in mind that my opinion could change after I do more research leading up to the season.  Without further ado, here are my early leans for the 13 biggest games in Week 1 of the 2015 college football season.

Texas at Notre Dame (-12.5)

My Early Lean: Texas +12.5 – My first look at this line was a little bit of shock.  There’s no question that the Texas Longhorns are going to be much better in head coach Charlie Strong’s second season.  He gets elite talent and will do a much better job of developing that talent than the previous coaches at Texas.  The Longhorns return 13 starters, including eight on an offense that should be one of the most improved in the country.  Strong’s ability to coach up the defense will be key in keeping Texas in the game.  The hype is big on the Fighting Irish because they do have 19 returning starters, but asking them to win by double-digits to beat the Longhorns is asking too much.

Arizona State at Texas A&M (-5.5)

My Early Lean: Texas A&M -5.5 – Last year was expected to be a down season for the Aggies due to all they lost on offense with Johnny Manziel and company.  That proved to be the case as they went 8-5 after winning a combined 20 games the previous two years.  However, they at least showed some promising signs and were really only badly blown out once all season at Alabama.  With 15 returning starters, including eight from an offense that put up 455 yards and 35.2 points per game, the Aggies are primed to return to SEC West title contention in 2015.  Arizona State also returns a lot of experience with 16 starters back, but it loses starting quarterback Taylor Kelly.  I’ll lean toward laying the points with the Aggies.

Alabama (-12.5) at Wisconsin

My Early Lean: Alabama -12.5 – The Alabama Crimson Tide will be a Top 3 team in the AP Preseason Poll, and for good reason.  They recruit the top talent in the country and once again brought in the best freshman class in the land.  After losing in the playoff to Ohio State, this team won’t be lacking any motivation at the start of the season.  The offense is a question with just four returning starters, but this was an inexperienced bunch last year, and they still had their best offense in school history at 485 yards per game.  The defense ranked 12th at 312 yards per game allowed, and with seven starters back, this may be the best stop unit in the land.  Gary Anderson left Wisconsin for the Oregon State job, which just goes to show being a head coach in Madison isn’t a huge attraction after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas a couple years earlier.  The Badgers have 13 starters back, but only five on offense, and they lose running back Melvin Gordon.  They lost 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship to Ohio State last year.  I expect their offense to get shut down in this one and to not be able to keep up with the Crimson Tide.

Auburn (-11.5) at Louisville

My Early Lean: Louisville +11.5 – I was way down on the Auburn Tigers last year after their magical run to the national championship game in 2013.  They won all of their close games that year, but then came back down to earth as expected in 2014.  They were right up there as favorites to win the SEC West right alongside Alabama, but fell flat on their faces in an 8-5 campaign.  They were even on the good side of the close games as they went 3-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less.  Now, the Tigers return only 12 starters and are overvalued to open the 2015 season once again.  The only have four starters back on offense and lose most of their top playmakers.  Bobby Petrino was working with Charlie Strong’s former players last year and turned in a solid 9-4 campaign, which included a 2-point loss at Virginia, a 6-point loss at Clemson, and a 31-42 home loss to Florida State after blowing a big lead.  Yes, the Cardinals only have nine returning starters this year, but I expect them to be solid in the second year in Petrino’s system.  Quarterback Will Gardner and five starters return on offense.  This is a team that outgained the opposition by 102 yards per game a year ago.

Virginia at UCLA (-16)

My Early Lean: UCLA -16 – These teams played a great game last year in the opener as UCLA won 28-20 at Virginia.  The Cavaliers outplayed the Bruins in that contest, but I don’t expect that to be the case in 2015.  Virginia was a very experienced, underrated team last year coming into the season, but now they are pretty much starting over.  The Cavaliers have just 10 returning starters in what will be a rebuilding year.  The headlines at UCLA surround quarterback Brett Hundley’s early departure to the NFL Draft, but the fact of the matter is that this team has plenty of talent to compete for a Pac-12 title in 2015.  That’s because they return a whopping 18 starters, including 10 from an offense that put up 468 yards per game last year.  Look for the Bruins to win and win big.

Purdue at Marshall (-13.5)

My Early Lean: Purdue +13.5 – The Purdue Boilermakers could not possibly be more undervalued heading into the 2015 season.  Darrell Hazell has struggled in his first two seasons at Purdue as they went 1-11 in his first year in 2013 before compiling a 3-9 campaign last year.  They were at least more competitive last season as their biggest loss came by 24 points.  They also beat a pair of bowl teams in Western Michigan and Illinois.  The third season is when new head coaches usually show their biggest improvement, and I expect that to be the case in West Lafayette as well.  Purdue now has 15 returning starters and will be one of the most improved teams in the country.  Marshall nearly went undefeated last year, which has it overvalued heading into 2015.  It will take a big step back this year with only 11 returning starters and the loss of record-breaking QB, Rakeem Cato.  The Thundering Herd will not win this game by two touchdowns.

Ohio State (-18) at Virginia Tech

My Early Lean: Virginia Tech +18 – The Ohio State Buckeyes come into the 2015 season way overvalued due to winning the National Championship last year.  Sure, they are going to be title contenders once again, but they are likely to not be playing with the same motivation that they played with at the end of last year.  They have 15 returning starters and a big battle at the quarterback position for the starting job.  Asking them to go on the road and beat Virginia Tech by 19-plus points to cover this spread is asking too much.  I expect the Hokies to be one of the most improved teams in the country because they have 16 starters back.  Their offense should be improved with eight starters returning, and their defense should be even better than last year’s unit that allowed 332 yards per game with eight starters back as well.  Their defense will limit what Ohio State does offensively, which will keep them in this game for four quarters.

North Carolina at South Carolina (-7.5)

My Early Lean: North Carolina +7.5 – The Tar Heels had a lot of returning talent last year, but their defense let them down as they allowed 496 yards per game.  That stop unit will can only get better in 2015 with seven starters back.  North Carolina returns 17 starters in all, including 10 from an offense that averaged 430 yards and 32.8 points per game.  Quarterback Marquise Williams returns and can do it all.  South Carolina is coming off a down year that saw it go just 7-6 on the season.  It doesn’t have a whole lot returning this year with just 12 starters back.  The defense should be improved with eight starters returning, but the offense is a huge question mark with only four starters back.  I’ll take the 7.5 points in a border rivalry game here.

Michigan at Utah (-3.5)

My Early Lean: Michigan +3.5 – When Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, it became an instant Big Ten title contender.  All Harbaugh does is win anywhere he goes.  From San Diego State, to Stanford and to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, he has a tremendous track record.  I look for the Wolverines to be a contender from Day 1 with Harbaugh at the helm.  Fortunately for him, Brady Hoke did not leave the cupboard bare.  The Wolverines have a whopping 17 starters returning from last year.  They will be an elite defensive team with eight starters back from a unit that ranked 10th in the country in allowing just 310 yards per game.  The offense will obviously show huge improvement with nine starters back under the tutelage of Harbaugh.  Michigan will also be hungry to avenge its home loss to Utah last year.  The Utes return 14 starters in 2015.

Duke (-20.5) at Tulane

My Early Lean: Tulane +20.5 – The Duke Blue Devils have done the unthinkable the last three seasons in making three straight bowl games.  After winning the ACC Coastal Division out of nowhere in 2013, the Blue Devils showed it was no fluke by going 9-4 last year.  However, this team is now starting to get a lot of respect from oddsmakers, and I believe it will be a wise move to fade them early in the season.  They only have 13 starters back this year and lose quarterback Anthony Boone.  Tulane is a feisty team that will battle anyone.  It returns 15 starters from a team that was only outgained by 41 yards per game last season.  Its defense has seven starters back from a unit that allowed 388 yards per game, and its offense should be improved with eight starters and its starting QB returning.  I feel pretty confident about the Green Wave’s chances of staying within three touchdowns of the Blue Devils in the opener.

TCU (-20) at Minnesota

My Early Lean: Minnesota +20 – The TCU Horned Frogs arguably should have made the college football playoff last year.  They will likely enter the 2015 season as a Top 3 team because of all that they return.  They have 15 starters back, including 10 from a record-setting offense that put up 46.5 points and 533 yards per game last season.  But because of all the preseason hype, I believe the Horned Frogs are laying too many points here as 20-point favorites at Minnesota in the opener.  The Golden Gophers have been one of the most underrated teams in college football the past couple seasons, and they are getting no respect again here.  They have 12 starters back, including seven on a defense that ranked 38th in allowing 363 yards per game.  Their ability to run the football, control the clock and play defense should keep them in this game.  Plus, they’ll be motivated to avenge a 7-30 road loss to TCU last year.

Baylor (-35.5) at SMU

My Early Lean: Baylor -35.5 – The Baylor Bears finished No. 7 in the final AP poll and would have been higher if not for blowing a late lead to Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.  This year, the Bears return an amazing 17 starters, and it seems that no matter who they put at QB, they have tremendous success in this system.  Art Briles will have the Bears motivated from the start to get into the college football playoff.  While the Bears are known for their offense, they actually have one of the best defensive lines in the country.  We all know what kind of a disaster it was for SMU last year as it went 1-11 while getting outscored by 30.2 points per game and outgained by 230 yards per contest.  New head coach Chad Morris believes he can turn it around, and he’ll have a chance to with 15 returning starters, but it’s going to take some time.  They lost 45-0 at Baylor last year and 24-59 to Baylor back in 2012.  I believe the Bears will cover the 35.5-point spread to open the season.

Kent State at Illinois (-17)

My Early Lean: Illinois -17 – The Fighting Illini are certainly a team on the rise.  Tim Beckman did a heck of a job last year in taking a team that went 4-12 in his first season in 2013 to one that went 6-7 and made a bowl game in 2014.  They won three Big Ten games over Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern, while also beating fellow bowl team Western Kentucky outside the conference.  They go from having 14 starters back last year to 15 in 2015.  The third year is when head coaches usually make their biggest imprints on the program, and I like Beckman’s chances of getting the Illini to take another step forward this year.  Quarterback Wes Lunt is among eight returning starters on offense.  This unit should take a big leap forward in 2015 if Lunt can stay healthy, because he completed 63.2% of his passes with 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions in limited action last year.  Kent State returns 16 starters this year and will be improved, but that’s not saying much after it was outscored by 13.8 points per game and outgained by 115 yards per contest last year.  It went just 2-10 last season and will struggle out of the gates to be competitive against an improving team from the Big Ten like Illinois.

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