College Football is Back
The 2021 college football season is officially underway, and while games were played in Week 0 and on Wednesday, the first showdown involving a top 25 program takes place Thursday. No. 4 Ohio State travels to face Minnesota in the second Big Ten conference game of the season as the Buckeyes eye a return to the College Football Playoff and chance at a national championship.
With Justin Fields no longer under center, Ohio State will be relying on its bevy of talented pass catchers to supplement first-year starter C.J. Stroud. Minnesota is looking to find its footing after a disappointing 2020 campaign that saw the team play just seven games, finishing 3-4 without a win over an upper echelon opponent.
Also Thursday, UCF and Boise State will square off in one of the top Group of Five games this season. Not only do both programs hope to kick off the season with a big-time win, they will also be angling to show off their credentials as the Big 12 will undoubtedly be evaluating both teams as potential additions to the league after the departures of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. Thursday also marks the debuts new coaches as UCF's Gus Malzahn replaces Josh Heupel and Boise State's Andy Avalos steps in for Bryan Harsin after the latter coaches left for Tennessee and Auburn, respectively.
While winning is all that matters for the standings, we care about whether these teams will cover their spreads. Be sure to stick with CBS Sports throughout the day for college football coverage from the opening kickoff on Thursday to the final whistle. Let's take a look at our expert picks for the first big game day of the season.
Boise State at UCF
Boise State is a strong team, but the experience gap is hard to ignore. The Broncos lose more than half of their adjusted production from a defense that already ranked outside the top 40. Adding five Power Five transfers alone at running back and wide receiver gives UCF an explosiveness that Boise State's young cornerbacks can't match. The coaching experience gap will also rear its head down the stretch. UCF cements the AAC as the frontrunner for the Group of Five bowl bid with a comfortable home win. Prediction: UCF (-5)
Ohio State at Minnesota
It's tough to go against the Buckeyes in a Big Ten game. Ohio State won its six Big Ten games by an average of 21.5 points last season. Sure, there's the possibility that with a new quarterback under center and plenty of new faces in other spots, the Buckeyes won't be nearly as efficient in the first game of the season. Not to mention, this is a road game where Ohio State will be playing in front of fans for the first time since 2019. Still, I just don't trust that Minnesota's offense will be able to keep pace over a full 60 minutes, so I'm laying the points with Ohio State. Prediction: Ohio State (-14.5)
Bowling Green at Tennessee
Good ole Rocky Top is …. back? With all the hype surrounding the 2021 season and the debut of former UCF coach Josh Heupel, are the vols set to turn things around? The Tennessee Volunteers will host the Bowling Green State University Falcons in the opening game of the 2021 College Football season for both teams. Last year, the Tennessee Volunteers played an SEC-only schedule and went 3-7, and Bowling Green went 0-5 facing only teams from the Mid-American Conference. These two programs met once on September 5, 2015, with Tennessee winning that game 59-30.
Not much is expected from the Falcons, who have a Vegas over/under win total set at just 1.5. The Falcons went 0-5 last year and lost by an average margin of almost 34 points against five MAC opponents. Bowling Green could be the worst FBS team in the nation and will have their hands full with Tennessee in all phases of the game. Expect Tennessee and its new coaching staff to come out ready to make a statement at home. Josh Heupel's offense should be explosive and will run through the Falcons like swiss freaking cheese. Take the Vols to cover, winning this game by at least 41 points. Prediction: Tennessee Volunteers (-34.5) GBO
East Carolina at Appalachian State
The East Carolina Pirates will look to begin their 2021 campaign with a major upset victory when they take on the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. East Carolina enters its third year under head coach Mike Houston, hoping to improve from a 3-6 (3-5 AAC) campaign in 2020. Appalachian State is coming off a 9-3 (6-2 Sun Belt) season in the first year under head coach Shawn Clark, as its lengthy reign atop the conference came to an end.
These teams have not met since 2012, when East Carolina rolled to a 35-13 win at home. Appalachian State leads 19-12 all-time, but East Carolina has won the last six meetings dating back to 1975. Even though this East Carolina team should show some progress this season, Appalachian State is going to be too much to handle as a far more balanced and well-coached roster. The Mountaineers return the vast majority of what was one of the most efficient offenses in college football last season not to mention what could easily be a top 10 scoring defense, and the Pirates will have tough trouble getting stops. East Carolina is a solid offense, but a little too one-dimensional without a great running game, and this is one of the toughest opposing defenses to deal with in college football, mid-major or not. Appalachian State is incredibly talented for a Sun Belt team, and will easily overwhelm East Carolina here with its offense stringing together several lengthy drives behind the run game. Prediction: Appalachian State (-10)
South Florida (USF) at NC State
The South Florida Bulls hope for better days under second-year head coach Jeff Frost when kick-starting their 2021 season on Thursday night against the NC State Wolfpack. In his first year with the team, Frost’s Bulls finished the season with a pitiful 1-8 record with their lone victory coming against The Citadel at Raymond Jones Stadium. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack finished their year with an 8-4 record and a 21-23 loss in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl to the Kentucky Wildcats.
Cade Fortin should bring a life vest for this game because he’s about to get lost in a sea of red. The inability to slow down the pass rush was one of the biggest factors that led to Jeff Frost’s Bulls finishing the season with a 1-8 record in 2020.
Sure, they have plenty of veteran options for Fortin to throw to at receiver, but it’s hard to hit targets when you’re running for your life in the offensive backfield. North Carolina State has defensive issues of their own, but they’ve shown the ability to generate heat up front.
They’ve also shown the ability to chew up yards on the ground with running back Zonovan Smith in the lineup. He better bring a bib on Thursday night because he’s about to eat up some yards against this pitiful Bulls defensive front. The ability to run the ball consistently will make standing in the pocket a breeze for Devin Leary and the offense, as they’ll be able to keep the Bulls off-balance throughout this contest. I’m laying the big points and taking NC State. Prediction: NC State Wolfpack (-18)