James Scully’s NCAAF free picks: Week 1

James Scully

August 28th, 2019

College football is back! A pair of games took place last Saturday, but Week 1's full slate of games begins Thursday, and we’re excited to build upon a successful first season at BetAmerica (35-21-1 ATS) with a weekly four-pack of free picks. Quarterback play is under the microscope this week, as three of the four teams have a significant edge.

UCLA at Cincinnati (-2.5), Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Not much was expected from Cincinnati last year, but after Desmond Ridder took over at quarterback midway through the season opener, the Bearcats went 11-2 behind the redshirt freshman. Ridder will keep progressing and Cincinnati should play better than UCLA in every facet of this matchup. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell has made a difference and his third year may be his last on the Cincinnati sideline, as major programs will take notice with another successful campaign.

We like the Bearcats by double digits.

Cincinnati is of the most experienced teams, with 15 returning starters and several more who made significant contributions, and a pair of key players (running back Gerrid Doaks and Kevin Mouhon) are back at full strength after they missed 2018 because of injury. Statistically, Cincinnati will be one of the nation’s better defensive teams again, and it will look to bludgeon opponents with a formidable offensive line and dynamic ground game that includes NFL prospect Michael Warren (the Bearcats were 15th in rushing offense in 2018). All but one wide receiver returns and Cincy features a special-teams weapon in punter James Smith (44.3 net yards per punt).
UCLA lacked cohesion under head coach Chip Kelly en route to a 3-9 record last year. The Bruins have dropped 14 of their last 15 road games and are 1-4 ATS in season openers over last five years. We’re not keen on the quarterback situation, as Dorian Thompson-Robinson beat out Austin Burton, and don’t be surprised to see multiple signal callers if the offense struggles. Running back Joshua Kelley will provide some hope, but the Bearcats ranked 17th against the run last year (118.8 yards per game) and should be stingy once again.

The Bruins bring back a number of defensive players, but take note how recent losses have thinned the linebacker ranks. UCLA had to replace five players on defense from last season and expected starting linebackers Tyree Thompson and Keisean Lucier-South are now out, along with backup Bo Calvert. Those are big losses, so good luck stopping the run Thursday. UCLA will improve as the season develops, but count on a slow start, as Cincinnati will dominate time of possession with its ground game.

Pick: Cincinnati -2.5

Purdue (-10.5) at Nevada, Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN

Purdue enters 2019 with the arguably the worst offensive line in the Big Ten, and it’s fair to expect a transitional year after back-to-back bowl appearances under head coach Jeff Brohm. The Boilermakers must avoid a hangover from an embarrassing 63-14 beatdown in the Music City Bowl (Auburn just tried to run the clock out in second half after it opened up a 56-7 lead in the first half) and they will be without top running back Tario Fuller (fractured jaw) and leading defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal (knee).

Nevada made good strides under coach Jay Norvell in 2018, with a 8-5 record after a 3-9 mark in his first season, and we like how the Wolf Pack found its rhythm during the second half of 2018 and finished on a 5-2 ATS run. A respectable 41st against the run (144 yards per game) last season, Nevada has depth on the defensive side and can make plays against Purdue’s suspect line.

Brohm remains an offensive guru, and Purdue will score points behind quarterback Elijah Sindelar and wide receiver Rondale Moore, but the offense returns only one other starter, and the defense has questions to answer after it held only one of its final five opponents (Indiana) to fewer than 36 points. The Boilermakers got off to a poor start last year (0-3, including a loss to Eastern Michigan) and should be on upset alert this week.

This is too many points for Purdue to lay on the road against an up-and-coming Mountain West opponent. Nevada brings a sense of confidence, with running back Toa Taua set to build upon a successful freshman season and nearly the entire receiving corps back, and even though it lost three starters on offensive line, the Wolf Pack is well-coached up front (17th in sacks allowed last year) and won’t face an imposing defense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Carson Strong has the arm and weapons to be effective, so look for Nevada to hold its own.

Pick: Nevada +10.5

Virginia (-2.5) at Pittsburgh, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network

Virginia owns a big advantage at quarterback with Bryce Perkins, and the Cavaliers are poised to make a statement in the season opener. The third-best ACC team entering 2019 (behind Clemson and Syracuse), Virginia has the experience to start fast (14 returning starters and 20 who have started a game) and Pitt could be a mess offensively early, after the loss of a pair of superb running backs who carried the team last year and the return of ineffective quarterback Kennuy Pickett. Pickett will be challenged by cornerback Bryce Hall, a first-team All-American in preseason rankings.

Virginia was banged up and lost a tough one to Pitt in 2018, but the Cavaliers enter with a 9-4 ATS record in their last 13 games. They’ve started to get it rolling under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who faced a complete rebuild when hired in 2016 and went 2-10 in his first season. Virginia brings back so much depth from a team that finished last year with a 28-0 thrashing of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Perkins is one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks (more than 2,600 passing and 900 rushing yards in 2018) and Pitt recently lost top pass rusher Rashad Weaver to an ACL injury.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is no slouch. He led the Panthers to an ACC Coastal Division title and has a 20-12 record in conference play, but Pitt brings back only one starter from the offensive line. And a defense that ranked 84th against the run (188.3 yards per game) looks suspect up front to begin the season. Virginia has something to prove after four straight losses to its rival.

Pick: Virginia -2.5

Oregon vs. Auburn (-3.5), Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Justin Herbert bypassed being one of the top picks in the NFL draft because he had unfinished business at Oregon following a 9-4 season. The 6-foot-6 quarterback threw for 3,151 yards and 29 TDs in 2018, and he provides the Ducks with an enormous edge over Auburn, which has named true freshman Bo Nix as its starter. Oregon’s secondary is the weak link of the defense, but it’s fair to question whether Nix can exploit it. And Auburn coach Gus Malzahn figures to have a short leash (Joey Gatewood waiting in the wings) if the Tigers struggle offensively against the Pac-12 North’s preseason favorite.

This gameplayed at a neutral site in Arlington, Texaslooks more like a pick ‘em in our estimationm and we certainly would not lay a field goal given Auburn’s offensive questions.

Auburn appears to be all about defense. Formidable up front, with perhaps the nation’s best defensive line, the Tigers have arguably the top secondary in the SEC. Auburn has to replace every starting linebacker from last year, but defense isn’t the concern in this contest. The Auburn offense must be able to score enough points to match the Ducks. Auburn will rely on running back JaTarvious Whitlow and returns all five starters on its offensive line, but the Tigers didn’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018 for the first time in nine years and will face an underrated Oregon defense.

The Ducks’ front seven will guarantee success for their high-powered offense in many games. Oregon brings back a number of key players, including star linebacker Troy Dye, and has added five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to a unit that allowed less than four yards per carry in 2018. With all five starters back on the Pac-12’s top offensive line, Oregon will look to offset Auburn’s strength up front and tight end Cam McCormick will be one of the nation’s best pass catchers and a highly effective blocker. Running back CJ Verdell (1,018 rushing yards) looks ready to blossom as a sophomore and will supply the offense with valuable balance to disrupt defensive schemes focusing on Herbert. The Ducks added 6-foot-4 Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson to a solid rotation of wide receivers.

Head coach Mario Cristobal utilized a conservative game plan last year and Oregon got off to a disappointing 5-3 start. The coaching staff has retooled the approach in 2019, with a scheme designed to capitalize upon one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, and Oregon has everything to play for in opener. The Ducks are eligible to run the table and make the College Football Playoff if they beat Auburn. We love the underdog in Texas.

Pick: Oregon +3.5

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