Friday, December 9, 2022

The Four Pack: Nebraska vs. Northwestern, Illinois vs. Wyoming among best Week 0 college football picks

Your long wait is over. The college football season begins Saturday with Week 0, which is an odd thing to call the first week of the season. Week 0 used to be reserved for FCS teams and maybe an FBS game to get the juices flowing, but we watch football in August just as easily as September. Realizing this, television networks started putting more and more games in Week 0. Now, it’s something of a soft launch for the season.

Why they don’t just start calling it Week 1, I’m not sure. Maybe they saw the reaction when the NCAA Tournament began calling the play-in games the “First Round” and the first round the “Round of 64.” Maybe Week 0 sounds cool so they stuck with it. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have actual college football games to watch this weekend.

It’s not a full slate, so consider this a Week 0 of The Six Pack. Instead of six games, I’m only picking four. It’s like one of those four packs you can buy from a microbrewery. Maybe we’ll call it The Six Pack IPA. Whatever we call it, I’ve got picks for you, and I fully intend to have another winning season in the column. In fact, the only losing season I’ve had with The Six Pack in the last five years was the 2020 COVID-19 season, so I’m blaming COVID, not myself.

All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook

Game of the Week

Featured Game | Northwestern Wildcats vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Nebraska vs. Northwestern: The season kicks off in Ireland with a Big Ten battle between two teams that lost their last six games of the 2021 season. In fact, Nebraska’s last win of 2021 was a 56-7 rout over Northwestern. Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost enters the season on one of the hottest seats in the country, and the prevailing theory is that he needs to reach a bowl game, at minimum, to keep his job. Winning this game would be a boost to that goal. Northwestern, meanwhile, won the Big Ten West in 2020, but followed that up with a 3-9 effort in 2021 after the defense fell off a cliff under first-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

Honestly, this game isn’t easy to figure out. Since the spread gives Nebraska a little too much credit, the under seems like the smarter play. The Huskers have a new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, who helped lead Pitt to an ACC title last season, and a new QB in Texas transfer Casey Thompson. It’s not unreasonable to expect all of these new parts to stumble out of the gate. Also, O’Neil is entering his second year as the Wildcats’ DC, and a young defense is now older. Given that defense is a big part of the program’s identity, I expect the Wildcats to stiffen up in 2022. Even if they don’t, I’m not expecting their offense to score a bunch of points. I see a low-scoring affair regardless of Nebraska’s margin of victory, and Northwestern’s path to winning isn’t a shootout. Every way I break this game down suggests going with the under. Nebraska 24, Northwestern 14 | Under 50.5

Lock of the Week

Featured Game | New Mexico State Aggies vs. Nevada Wolf Pack

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Nevada at New Mexico State: You know it’s Week 0 when the Lock of the Week involves betting on a New Mexico State program that has gone 8-30 since 2018. While it seems nuts to take the Aggies against a Nevada team that went 8-5 last year, the Wolf Pack are a vastly different team in 2022. First of all, QB Carson Strong and WR Romeo Doubs are in the NFL. Furthermore, coach Jay Norvell, who went 33-26 in five seasons, left to take over Colorado State. That’s the same Colorado State program that went 18-35 in those same five seasons.

Norvell also took his coaching staff and a few key players with him via the transfer portal. What’s left is a new head coach, Ken Wilson, who is familiar with the program after serving as an assistant in Reno from 1989 to 2012. The only time he wasn’t coaching Nevada in that span was when he was the school’s associate AD. He’s never been a head coach and inherits a roster that isn’t near the level of what the team had last year, and I don’t think most power ratings have caught onto that.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State will be led by first-year coach Jerry Kill. While the Aggies are destined to struggle, Kill has plenty of experience getting the most out of what he has available and plays a style of football designed to keep things close. I think the Aggies can do that Saturday. Nevada 27, New Mexico State 24 | New Mexico State +9

Team Total of the Week

Featured Game | Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Wyoming Cowboys

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Wyoming at Illinois: I don’t make a habit of betting team totals in this column because I like to keep things as cookie-cutter as possible to appeal to a broader audience. With a limited slate, however, I need to find value where I can, and there’s value on this Illinois team total. The Illini went 5-7 last year and regretted a few of those seven losses. The team’s biggest problem was on offense, but coach Bret Bielema didn’t cross his fingers hoping things would improve in Year 2. Instead, he brought in a new offensive coordinator, Barry Lunney Jr. The two have a history together, from their time together at Arkansas, to when Bielema watched Lunney’s UTSA offense put up 37 points against the Illini in Champaign last fall.

Illinois’ offense isn’t likely to look like one you’d expect from a Bielema team. While running the ball will still be the bread and butter, the Illini plan to move at a quicker tempo and spread things out a little more. They’re facing a Wyoming team that, like Nevada, lost a lot to the transfer portal. It’s also undersized. When looking at the depth chart for both squads, the Illinois offensive line has about 50 pounds per player on Wyoming’s defensive line. It’s an area to exploit, and with this being the home opener and Bielema looking to give fans reasons to be excited about 2022, I expect the Illinois offense to show out a bit. It won’t put the entire playbook on display with Indiana on deck, but it won’t have to, either. Illinois 31, Wyoming 17 | Illinois Over 27.5

Numbers Play of the Week

Featured Game | Utah State Aggies vs. Connecticut Huskies

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UConn at Utah State: Here’s a little peek behind the curtain: we don’t have a lot of games to choose from, nor do we know as much about these teams as we think. We spend all offseason convincing ourselves what teams will look like and what’s likely to happen. Once the games begin, though, we’re routinely smacked in the face by reality.

Utah State will be one of the better teams in the Mountain West. I’m confident in that, just as I’m confident that Utah State is much better than UConn. That said, my numbers suggest Utah State isn’t 27 points better than UConn. My numbers say this spread should be closer to 24 points, so I’m trusting those numbers until I have a reason not to. Betting UConn is never fun, nor is it easy. This will be a sweat, but if we’re starting a season, we may as well dive in head first. Utah State 34, UConn 10 | UConn +27

Which college football picks can you make with confidence in Week 0, and which big favorite will get a huge scare? Visit SportsLine to see which teams will win and cover the spread — all from a proven computer model that has returned almost $3,600 in profit over the past six seasons — and find out.

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