The 2021 college football regular season begins with the unusual Week 0 as there are five games this Saturday. Here’s a look at three sleeper picks among those five with NCAAF odds.
2021 College Football Regular Season
Nebraska at Illinois (+7)
This game was to be held in Ireland but was moved to Illinois because of COVID. It’s the Illinois head coaching debut of Bret Bielema. Bielema compiled a record of 97-58 (.626) record over 12 years as head coach at Wisconsin (2006-12) and Arkansas (2013-17). He replaces Lovie Smith, who spent five years at Illinois.
To no surprise, Bielema has named senior Brandon Peters as his starting QB. Peters brings a host of experience to the table, with 2,313 yards over his two seasons in Champaign, finding the endzone 21 times for touchdowns as opposed to just 8 interceptions.
Nebraska has won the past two meetings in Champaign, and the Huskers bring a two-game road winning streak into Saturday’s game after the Huskers won at Purdue and Rutgers last December. Nebraska went 2-3 away from home last season with all three losses to teams that finished the year ranked in the top 20, including one-possession losses at No. 10 Northwestern and No. 16 Iowa.Adrian Martinez is back for his fourth year as Nebraska’s starting quarterback. Martinez, who owns four Nebraska career records and five season marks, is one of only four active FBS players with 5,000 career passing yards and 1,500 career rushing yards. He was second among all FBS quarterbacks in rushing during the 2020 season (74.4 ypg), while ranking fourth in completion percentage (71.5).
Nebraska leads the all-time series with Illinois, 13-4-1. The Huskers are 6-2 against the Illini since joining the Big Ten Conference in 2011. Pick: Illinois.
UConn at Fresno State (-27)
UConn was one of three FBS schools to not play last season as the Huskies opted out of the entire campaign. Thus, this will be their first game as a football independent. The other sports programs moved back to the Big East from the AAC but there is not football in the Big East.
Fresno State went 3-3 in 2020 in their first year under head coach Kalen DeBoer. FSU brings back one of the country’s top running backs in Ronnie Rivers. Last year, he was First Team All-Mountain West and led the conference with 136.3 all-purpose yards per game. He finished second in the conference with an average of nine points per game and in touchdowns scored (9). Rivers posted a total of 507 rushing yards on 100 carries, while adding 265 receiving yards on 27 catches. He totaled 818 all-purpose yards on the season.
His 44 career TDs are tied for the most in school history and the senior is also tied for the program record with 116 career pass receptions by a running back and is tied for third in the record books in all-time career rushing touchdowns with 35.
Bulldogs QB Jake Haener also is back. He had a really strong 2020 campaign, completing 64.7% of his passes while throwing for 14 touchdowns and five interceptions and averaging 336.8 passing yards per game. Pick: UConn.
Hawaii at UCLA (-17)
The Rainbow Warriors (5-4 in 2020) are seeking their first win over the Bruins in the schools’ fourth all-time meeting. This marks the fourth time in the last five years that Hawaii will open the season with a true road game. UH has won the previous three — 2020 at Fresno State, 2018 at Colorado State and 2017 at UMass.
UH has seven offensive starters back, highlighted by Calvin Turner Jr., an all-conference pick last year at receiver who enters this year as the nation’s leading returner in career all-purpose yards (4,359 yards). The defense returns all 11 starters and is anchored by first-team all-MW linebacker Darius Muasau, who led FBS with 68 solo tackles and ranked fifth in tackles per game (11.8) last season.
UCLA, which went 3-4 in 2020, is coached by Chip Kelly, who begins his fourth season with the Bruins and has a 10-21 record at the school. Bruins QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson is coming off a season in which he posted a pass efficiency rating of 156.29 which was the highest by a Bruin starting quarterback since 2005. He became the first Bruin to rush for at least 100 yards (109) and pass for at least 300 yards (303) in the same game (at Colorado). He rushed for 306 yards on the season with a 5.6 yards per attempt average. The league coaches named him to the second-team All-Pac-12 squad.
After giving up late leads to USC and Stanford to end the season, Kelly added starting-caliber linebackers through the transfer portal. Ale Kaho, a redshirt junior, is a former four-star prospect who was a special-teams stalwart for Alabama. Jordan Genmark Heath played in 39 straight games for Notre Dame.
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