Analysis | College football best bets: Can Alabama cover a huge spread at Texas?

Nick Saban and Alabama will look to run Texas out of its own stadium Saturday.
Nick Saban and Alabama will look to run Texas out of its own stadium Saturday. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

Last week’s season-opening college football picks went a ho-hum 2-2, as Notre Dame and TCU were winning selections while Michigan State and Boise State couldn’t get the job done. Let’s try to improve on that mark in Week 2.

This column will give out four picks per week: the game of the week, a favorite, an underdog and a wild card, which can be anything (another favorite or underdog in a game that might be flying under the radar, or a total, for instance). Hopefully we’ll all be rich by the time the clock hits zero in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 9.

All spreads were taken Wednesday from the consensus odds at unless noted. All times Eastern on Saturday.

Forget the chatter about college football business and focus on the games

No. 1 Alabama (-20.5) at Texas, noon, Fox

Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban is 25-2 in games against teams coached by his former assistants, winning by an average score of 41.9-19.1. But both of those losses came last season, when Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M upset Alabama during the regular season and Kirby Smart and Georgia beat the Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff championship game.

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Can Texas and Coach Steve Sarkisian, who served as an analyst under Saban in 2016 and then was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020, give Saban’s former assistants a third win, or at least keep things within the rather large point spread? The Longhorns had little trouble with Louisiana Monroe in their opener, winning, 52-10, but that margin against what could be one of the nation’s worst teams was at least a little deceiving: Texas scored touchdowns off a blocked punt and an interception return, two things that generally aren’t repeatable on a game-by-game basis (particularly against Alabama).

Heralded Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers, making his first career start, threw an interception on his second pass against ULM but otherwise did a good job keeping Texas ahead of schedule: He completed 9 of 11 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown on first down. But after a 23-yard pass on its first play from scrimmage last weekend against Alabama, here’s what Utah State was able to muster on its next nine first downs (which more or less covers the competitive portion of the game): rush for minus-two yards, one-yard rush, incomplete pass, rush for minus-four yards, rush for no gain, pass for minus-two yards, seven-yard rush, rush for no gain, rush for minus-one yard. In total, the Aggies lost one yard on those nine first-down plays. I can’t see Texas moving the ball with such early-down ease as it did against its overmatched opening opponent, and I think Alabama will cover here.

No. 19 Wisconsin (-17.5) vs. Washington State, 3:30 p.m., Fox

The Cougars’ overall lack of talent — ESPN’s Bill Connelly counted no players who were either four- or five-star recruits on their roster and only seven former three-star recruits in his season preview — was on full display in their season opener, when Washington State struggled to put away visiting Idaho in a 24-17 win. Now we’re asking this unheralded bunch to keep things close on the road against a Big Ten contender? Yikes.

Against the Vandals, Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward threw three touchdown passes but completed 25 of 40 passes for only 240 yards, a paltry six yards per attempt. The Badgers held Illinois State quarterback Zack Annexstad to just 186 passing yards and picked him off twice in last weekend’s 38-0 win.

Last year’s Wisconsin defense ranked second nationally in passing-play success rate, behind only national champion Georgia, and this year’s unit looks to be continuing along those lines. After letting Illinois State drive to the Wisconsin 9 in the first quarter — a drive that was halted by John Torchio’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown — the Badgers didn’t let the Redbirds advance past their 20-yard line the rest of the game. Sure, it was an overmatched Football Championship Subdivision foe, but considering Washington State’s offensive struggles last weekend against a lower-level opponent of its own, we’ll take the favorite here.

As college football season got underway in full, so did bad beat season

No. 20 Kentucky (+5) at No. 12 Florida, 7 p.m., ESPN

According to the SP+ metric, a forward-looking measure of efficiency, the Wildcats rate out slightly better than the Gators (15th in the country to 19th), and the teams are more or less even when taking into account Florida’s home-field advantage.

That’s enough for me to take the underdog here, but there are other reasons. The Gators’ win over Utah last weekend had much to do with the play of quarterback Anthony Richardson, who rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns, but it also had a lot to do with the Utes’ struggles in the red zone: In four of their trips past the Gators 20, they either settled for field goals, turned it over on downs or threw an interception from the Florida 6 (in the final seconds of a three-point game, no less).

Kentucky, which is thin at running back with presumed starter Chris Rodriguez suspended and backup Ramon Jefferson limited to two rushes last weekend because of injury, scored on 5 of 6 red-zone trips in its 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. And while the Gators were able to limit Utah to only a handful of explosive plays, the Utes still had a 56.3 percent success rate on offense (the percentage of plays in which it gained 50 percent of the needed yards on first down, 70 percent of the needed yards on second down and 100 percent of the needed yards on third and fourth down), which was better than the Gators’ offense. Richardson threw for only 168 yards on 24 attempts, and Kentucky similarly limited Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert (20 for 28, only 166 yards, with 24 of them coming on one play).

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is a better passer than Richardson and threw for 303 yards and three scores against Miami, while Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson caught six passes for 136 yards. Add it all up and the underdog can do enough to keep this close.

North Carolina-Georgia State under 65.5 points, noon, ESPNU

How much of this total has been inflated by the sheer lunacy of last weekend’s North Carolina-Appalachian State game, when the two teams combined for 62 points in the fourth quarter alone? I’d say a pretty good chunk.

The Tar Heels and the Mountaineers combined for 19 plays that gained at least 10 yards in the fourth quarter alone, with 10 of those plays gaining at least 20 yards. Of the nine (!) touchdowns scored in the quarter, six came on scrimmage plays of at least 13 yards and another was the result of a 43-yard kickoff return.

If something like that happens again, so be it, but I’m thinking it won’t, particularly because Georgia State’s offense was mainly dreadful in a season-opening 35-14 loss to South Carolina. After the Panthers took a 14-12 lead early in the third quarter, they punted four times (two were blocked and returned for touchdowns), turned it over on downs and threw an interception. For the game, Georgia State had an offensive success rate of just 24.6 percent, which isn’t good.

The Panthers’ defense, meanwhile, was actually not bad. Georgia State averaged more yards per play than the Gamecocks (4.5 to 4.4) and held South Carolina to only three offensive touchdowns, respectable for an overmanned Group of Six team against the SEC.

The puffed-up total, lack of fireworks from Georgia State’s offense and its sturdy-enough defense makes me think the under is the play here.

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