As we’ve noted repeatedly headed into the 2021 conference slate, heretofore-unheralded (geez, that sounds like a 2020s luxury car slogan, but it fits today’s topic with Undeniable Precision and Precise Undeniability) FBS programs are making hay against the nation’s Top 25, and the phenomenon of name-brand teams flopping as massive favorites against mid-ranked Division 1 opponents is doing more than just expose the folly of preseason and Week 1 AP Poll rankings this time.
COVID-19 sports restrictions of 2020 were like a dyke blocking-up part of the Nile River. Anti-sports journalists at The Nation and elsewhere were in “denial” indeed if they thought full crowds, full schedules, and full rosters wouldn’t come roaring back to life across the globe in 2021, but the presence of “Super-Seniors” with NFL-caliber leadership skills and smarts is helping the game’s smaller brands compete against a Top 25 ravaged by The Shield and the transfer portal, just as senior-laden college basketball teams have begun to outshine “1-and-done” squads like Kentucky.
“Ah ha,” a casual fan might say, “but what about the truly elite teams from the College Football Playoff, like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. They’re still running up the score on everybody, right?”
BUZZ – nope. No sir, not this time around. Alabama barely survived an upset bid from Florida at The Swamp in Week 3, scaring the pants off moneyline bettors who had included the Crimson Tide on their Saturday parlays. Just as said favorites’ gamblers were cinching-up their pants again, their eyes bugged out at the Clemson-Georgia Tech score.
OSU, Georgia, and Oregon posted solid Ws last Saturday. But a highly ranked Iowa team’s 1st string was still toiling in the 4th quarter against Kent State in a 30-7 victory, and Notre Dame failed to pull away from Purdue, as the Irish continue to win while losing street cred as a solid wager against-the-spread or to blow-out an O/U total.
We’re down with some Top 25 favorites in Week 4. But not in the Pac-12. The media finally got its act together and ranked Fresno State #22 after the Bulldogs beat Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins, but it’s not like a lot of analysts saw that coming down the pike either.
Picks must be made with an eye toward the reality of 2021 in the FBS – glorious for many teams and harsh for others – as opposed to any superficial angle or media trope.
Let’s dig into the Week 4 FBS slate, starting with tonight’s lone clash.
Thursday 9/23: Marshall Thundering Herd at Appalachian State Mountaineers
Marshall and Appalachian State have had similar campaigns thus far, at least when viewed superficially. Each team has a pair of blow-out victories to credit to go with a disappointing loss. However, a look at the strength-of-schedule gives away why App State is a (-7.5) point spread favorite for a lone Thursday night contest with a healthy (59.5) point O/U line.
The Mountaineers and Thundering Herd even have a common opponent, C-USA representative East Carolina. Appalachian State racked-up close to 500 yards in offense and could have scored more than 33 points in a 2-touchdown victory, while Marshall gave up a late comeback and lost 42-38 to the Pirates on 9/18. However, Week 3 was the 1st time Marshall’s starting-11 defense had had to play 4 full quarters on the season. Fatigue played a factor in the catastrophic blown lead, though the psychological blow remains.
App State may not find revenge an easy chore after losing to Marshall 17-7 in 2020. But the home-field advantage of the Mountaineers could make all the difference in ’21. Despite a disappointing 3-loss campaign last season, Thursday’s favorites have only lost twice at home in 2 seasons, to a pair of mean squads from GaSo and Louisiana.
Pick: App State (-7.5)
Friday 9/24: Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Wisconsin Badgers
Traditional scheduling has its place in the romance of college football – it’s awesome to see Texas vs Rice in Week 3, because it just doesn’t feel like autumn until “Texas 52, Rice 6” appears on a live Saturday scoreboard. However, coaches and ADs are starting to notice that FBS fans grow tired of watching the same out-of-conference games every year. Schools are making renewed efforts to schedule unique and colorful OOC match-ups, with fun betting opportunities like Wisconsin (-6.5) vs Notre Dame on Friday night.
Much like Thursday’s contest at Appalachian State, the home team is a broad favorite despite the visitors having thundered against the Top 25 in seasons past. Notre Dame has had a successful season thus far, going 3-0 against a dangerous OOC schedule.
But a loss by Florida State to the FCS has tarnished UND’s gridiron reputation for the time being. If the Seminoles aren’t any good in 2021, why did it take Notre Dame such effort to beat them?
It reverts to the old “Team X beat Team Y beat Team X” analysis, which is almost always a faulty equation. FSU fell to a trap game scenario the same as Notre Dame nearly did against Toledo in its next game. The Irish will play up to the competition as usual, marking a (46.5) O/U total a tad too conservative no matter how the spread shakes out.
Saturday 9/25: Missouri Tigers (-124) at Boston College Eagles
Speaking of cupcake schedules, the Boston College Eagles have racked-up inflated stat totals throughout a 3-0 start against teams with 1 combined win between them, including Colgate from the FCS. Still, bookmakers can’t say for sure that BC won’t be able to butt heads with a solid Power-5 program after beating Duke, Pitt, and Louisville in 2020.
Missouri (-124) has had issues against beatable foes during a 2-1 start, including a ridiculous 4 touchdowns allowed to little Southeast Missouri State in a thrash-for-cash Week 3 meeting. QB Connor Bazelak has been terrific so far and has a “baddy” in backfield weapon Tyler Badie, but the tailback was limited by Kentucky in UK’s 35-28 defeat of the Tigers 2 weekends ago.
Sin City isn’t giving Missouri’s opponents enough credit. Central Michigan has a talented offense, Kentucky is a brutish team compared to what BC has to offer, and SEMO scored its points once UM had gone up about 50-7 in the 3rd quarter. Meanwhile, the Temple Owls – victims of BC’s “quality” win – struggled to put away Akron earlier this month. Boston College hasn’t played a team from the same planet as the SEC’s mid-tier.
Saturday 9/25: Clemson Tigers at North Carolina State Wolfpack
Once is a fluke, but twice is a trend. D.J. Uiagalelei and the Clemson offense have struggled in 2 consecutive games vs FBS opponents. Week 1’s 10-3 loss to UGA could be explained as the Georgia defense crafting another masterpiece, but there’s no excuse for 14 points and a bizarre nail-biter against a batch of 3-star recruits from Georgia Tech.
Still, though, some pundits are weirdly disregarding the Clemson defense and special teams as if those units will give up now that the offense looks average. Fat chance – in fact a rejuvenated Death Valley defense knows it could be all that’s in the way of the program falling out of the Associated Press top-10 very shortly, calling a standard (48.5) O/U total on this Saturday’s contest with NC State into serious question.
Pick: Under (48.5)
Saturday 9/25: Georgia State Panthers at Auburn Tigers
Is a pack of “Tigers” taking over our FBS blog? Only because they’re stalking a few point spread covers! GSU (+26.5) is slightly overrated vs Auburn as a Sun Belt brand that has a pair of 30+ point losses on the ledger already. Playing at home against an outweighed, undermanned regional rival is how an SEC team wins 44-7 without a great effort.
Pick: Auburn (-26.5)
Saturday 9/25: North Carolina Tar Heels at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
GT’s defense deserves credit as a rare non-Top 25 unit with the ability to stop Clemson. Georgia Tech’s football community badly needed a strong performance after watching the team lose to Northern Illinois, and a slim loss to the 2-time College Football Playoff champs feels better than a 3-touchdown win over Presbyterian.
However, there’s no evidence that the Ramblin’ Wreck offense is going to be a dynamo anytime soon. Combined with a guaranteed emotional surge from a proud host defense at Bobby Dodd Stadium, it’s a wonder why the game’s O/U line is even in the 60s.
Pick: Under (63.5)
Saturday 9/25: Florida-Atlantic Owls at Air Force Falcons
It’s hard to get a read on the Pac-12 given the wild swings in form of the conference’s top tier in early 2021. So, let’s turn to a Mountain West vs C-USA kickoff for this Saturday night’s “westernly” college football pick.
Air Force can be the “forgotten” of the FBS’s trio of service academies, despite Troy Calhoun’s team banging-out winning record after winning record in a conference that’s proving as tough as the American in the 2020s.
The Falcons beat rival Navy earlier in September before falling to Utah State in a 49-45 circus last weekend. FAU is comprised of mostly Lane Kiffin holdovers, but the Owls are still a big, burly 2-1 team that shuttered a Georgia Southern offense that’s fairly similar to what Air Force does.
Once again, an O/U of (54.5) seems too high given the Falcons’ penchant for long, time-consuming drives, even if they’re foiled in the Red Zone by FAU. But the Owls still look like a solid Power-5 team in a G5 conference, marking FAU close to a true favorite on Saturday. If the Falcons can’t stop Utah State, can they hold back the Owls at home?
Pick: FAU (+4.5)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.