What to watch: Week 1 college football viewing guide, picks against the spread

Every week throughout the season we’ll give you a college football viewing guide by highlighting the five best games of the coming weekend. We will pick those five games against the spread and highlight some other matchups that caught our eye from a betting perspective.

After a wild, news-filled offseason, Week 1 is finally here. And it’s got the goods.

Last year at this time we were in the throes of the pandemic and eagerly awaiting games like Central Arkansas vs. UAB and BYU vs. Navy. This year, we’ve already had a taste of the season via an intriguing Week 0. And before we get to an action-packed Saturday, there are games like No. 4 Ohio State at Minnesota, Boise State at UCF and No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech on tap for Thursday and Friday.

No matter how crazy the offseason gets, the games always deliver what we love about college football. Let’s go!

(Note: All times ET, odds from BetMGM)

No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin

Time: Noon | TV: Fox | Line: Wisconsin -5.5 | Total: 50

Penn State had high expectations last year but ended up starting with five straight losses. PSU was able to finish 4-5, and now enters 2021 a little further down the rankings than usual during James Franklin’s tenure. Franklin brought in a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich and he’ll be tasked with getting the Nittany Lions' offense back to a high level. Part of that task is helping QB Sean Clifford, who is entering his third year as the starter. Clifford struggled in 2020, but he and his teammates get a huge opportunity to open the year.

Wisconsin saw its 2020 season hampered by coronavirus issues. The Badgers had three games canceled and ended up limping to a 4-3 finish. UW fans got their first taste of acclaimed QB recruit Graham Mertz last fall. He showed flashes of brilliance, but also played like a freshman at times. Will Mertz take the next step? And will UW’s rushing offense get back to its dominant ways? The Badgers were mediocre on the ground last year but could be able to exploit a Penn State defensive line that is relying on a few transfers.

Sam Cooper: Penn State +5.5, Nick Bromberg: Penn State +5.5

Other early games to watch: Tulane at No. 2 Oklahoma (ABC), Western Michigan at Michigan (ESPN), Stanford vs. Kansas State (FS1)

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami

Time: 3:30 p.m. | TV: ABC | Line: Alabama -20 | Total: 62

Alabama is coming off its sixth national title under Nick Saban but has plenty of new faces to break in on offense. Bryce Young, the top QB recruit in 2020, takes the reins from Mac Jones and will lead an offense under the tutelage of new OC Bill O’Brien. The Tide are working to find the best five on the offensive line and will also feature some new names in the receiving corps. The defense, meanwhile, has the chance to be one of the nation’s best and will get a good test from D’Eriq King and Miami.

King, Miami’s sixth-year senior QB, is coming off a torn ACL in last year’s bowl game but is said to be healthy. With the additions of King and Rhett Lashlee as offensive coordinator, Miami found a recipe for success offensively in 2020 and had a nice season. The Hurricanes did, however, lose two edge rushers (Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche) to the NFL. Miami struggled to stop the run last year even with those two crashing off the edge, so that’s a concern for the Hurricanes entering 2021.

Sam: Alabama -20, Nick: Miami +20

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) rolls out on a passing drill during the NCAA college football team's practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young (9) rolls out on a passing drill during practice on Aug. 12, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas

Time: 4:30 p.m. | TV: Fox | Line: Texas -8 | Total: 58

After going 10-1 in 2020, Louisiana opens the 2021 season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. Last year, the Ragin’ Cajuns went on the road and upset Iowa State to open the season. Can they upset another Big 12 team to open 2021? Nearly every starter from last year’s team is returning for coach Billy Napier, now in his fourth year at UL after drawing interest from several SEC schools. This is a dangerous team that will relish the chance to play on a big stage.

On the Texas side, this game marks the debut for head coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian has been the head coach at Washington and USC and revitalized his career at Alabama to get this chance. There was plenty left behind for him in Austin, most notably QB Hudson Card and RB Bijan Robinson. There are holes on this roster, however, and bringing in such a confident, experienced opponent makes this a very tricky opener for the Longhorns.

Sam: Texas -8, Nick: Louisiana +8

Other afternoon games to watch: No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa (BTN), West Virginia at Maryland (ESPN), Fresno State at No. 11 Oregon (Pac-12), San Jose State at No. 15 USC (Pac-12)

No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 3 Clemson

Time: 7:30 p.m. | TV: ABC | Line: Clemson -3 | Total: 51.5

Here’s one of the biggest Week 1 games in recent memory. Clemson has been a perennial playoff participant and Georgia is trying to get to that level. Is this the year Georgia can make that jump?

There’s so much talent on UGA’s roster, but injuries have piled up during preseason camp. There is also the question of who will step up at wide receiver. JT Daniels is a big-time upgrade at quarterback, but will the offense finally be able to generate explosive plays consistently in the passing game?

Clemson no longer has Trevor Lawrence, but is ready to break in D.J. Uiagalelei at quarterback. We got a taste of Uiagalelei’s talent last year against Notre Dame, and now he has the keys to the offense with a slew of new skill position players ready to step in. On the other side of the ball, all eyes should be on the defensive line. From a talent perspective, this group rivals the 2018 unit that saw three starters go in the first round of the NFL draft.

Sam: Clemson -3, Nick: Clemson -3

No. 16 LSU at UCLA

Time: 8:30 p.m. | TV: Fox | Line: LSU -3 | Total: 65

LSU went from undefeated national champion in 2019 to a 5-5 team in 2020. The defense was horrible and the offense took a step back. Ed Orgeron is trying to recapture that 2019 magic by bringing in two coaches who worked under Joe Brady, who was credited as the brains behind the national title-winning offense. While there’s no way to expect the Tigers to play at that level, the QB-WR combo of Max Johnson and Kayshon Boutte is promising. The defense has to be a lot better, too, and has a tough task with UCLA.

The Bruins have a game under their belts. They smashed Hawaii on Saturday, putting up 244 rushing yards in a 44-10 win. Chip Kelly kept things simple in that one, and was content to just run the ball down Hawaii’s throat. There will undoubtedly be some wrinkles added to the offense with LSU coming to town. UCLA has two standout running backs, Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, but QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson missed some throws vs. Hawaii. Expect LSU to force Thompson-Robinson to win with his arm.

Sam: UCLA +3, Nick: LSU -3

Other night games to watch: Oregon State at Purdue (FS1), Texas Tech vs. Houston (ESPN), Nevada at Cal

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly jogs to enter the field before an NCAA football game against Hawaii on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly jogs to enter the field before a game against Hawaii on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Week 1's best bets

Nick Bromberg

Stanford vs. Kansas State: Both teams struggled in 2020 but I think Kansas State’s struggles had a lot to do with Skylar Thompson’s injury. Thompson was the team’s QB during the win over Oklahoma in Week 2 and then suffered a season-ending injury the next week. With Thompson back and healthy, I trust K-State to cover in this game that will have a lot of purple in the stands in Arlington, Texas. Pick: Kansas State -3

Army at Georgia State: I gotta start the season off right with an Army under. This total is 50 and I don’t think it comes close to getting reached. Georgia State ran the ball at least 36 times in nine of its 10 games a year ago and we all know about Army’s option offense. I think the clock runs out on this game. Pick: Under 50

Ole Miss vs. Louisville: This game has the highest over/under of the weekend for good reason. It’s two teams with very good offenses and not-so-great defenses. But I think it’s too high. This Monday night game could be a fun nightcap, but 75.5 is too much. Pick: Under 75.5

Sam Cooper

Western Michigan at Michigan: I think a pretty nice bounce back is coming for Michigan after that terrible 2020 season. UM has a good group of running backs and should be able to do pretty well against Western Michigan. I don't trust Michigan to cover 17 points, but I do think this total is too high and UM will be able to keep the WMU offense in check. Pick: Under 66.5

Oregon State at Purdue: I don’t think this is a good Week 1 matchup for Purdue, a program that has struggled on defense. Oregon State has consistently put up big numbers on offense under Jonathan Smith and is 11-3 against the spread as a road underdog during Smith's tenure. Purdue will put up points, too, but I think Oregon State could win this game. Pick: Oregon State +7

No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State: A lot of people are expecting a step back from Notre Dame this year. Sure, the Irish won't have an undefeated regular season, but this is still a really good team. Jack Coan will be fine at QB, and ND is loaded at running back, tight end and defensively. FSU should be better, but is relying on so many transfers. Pick: Notre Dame -7.5

For other Week 1 picks from Sam Cooper, click here.

For Week 1 picks from Dan Wetzel, Pete Thamel and Pat Forde subscribe to the College Football Enquirer.