The college football season kicks off this Saturday in Dublin, Ireland, as Scott Frost's Nebraska Cornhuskers look to put last year's 3-9 season in the rearview mirror. It may sound like a stretch to call Week 0 a critical game, but Frost's future with the Huskers hinges on him producing a winning season. As a result, pressure and expectations are high as they enter Saturday's opener as 13.5-point favorites against Northwestern.
The Wildcats are coming off their own 3-9 season where they dropped their last six games. Northwestern's identity of winning at the line of scrimmage fell apart as the defense bottomed out. Northwestern allowed a conference-worst 6.15 yards per play after finishing in the top five nationally in defensive scoring the previous year.
Nebraska was among the many teams to take advantage of Northwestern's down year on defense, physically dominating them 56-7 while outrushing the Wildcats by 390 yards in last year's matchup. So whether or not Northwestern can keep this game competitive will boil down to the defensive line. Pat Fitzgerald targeted reinforcements in the portal by adding three transfers from Power Five programs to the front seven.
What does the early line movement indicate?
This game opened up Nebraska -10 with a total of 54.5, and it's been one-way traffic on the favorite and the under. Bettors have pushed the total down five points to 49.5, right through the key number of 51. The Northwestern offense ranked 125th last season in scoring, so money coming in on the under doesn't surprise. However, more importantly, it also signals confidence in the Wildcats' defense putting up a more respectable effort after allowing over 600 yards to the same team last year. That's a key factor if you are looking to back the underdog. The current odds imply Nebraska will score in the low 30s, and there are solid reasons to expect even less scoring.
Best Bet - Northwestern (+13.5)
I see this one playing out as a low-scoring game, making the 13.5 points too valuable to pass up. Nebraska overhauled its entire offense in the offseason and brought in coordinator Mark Whipple from Pitt to run it. Whether Whipple can turn transfer QB Casey Thompson into Kenny Pickett remains to be seen, but I am willing to bet the revamped offense doesn't put its best foot forward in the opener. I wouldn't be surprised if Whipple stops himself from putting too much on Thompson's plate against an opponent they expect to be able to beat in the trenches. Frost needs wins, not style points, so expect a conservative gameplan focused on limiting the turnovers that put them on the losing end of so many close games last year.
That's exactly the type of game Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald wants to play. Lacking explosive wideouts, the Wildcats will lean heavily on their biggest strength — the running game. RB Cam Porter's return from injury gives Northwestern a solid one-two combination in the backfield with 1,000 rusher Evan Hull. In addition, the offensive line returns four starters and should get enough push to wear down a Nebraska front. The travel aspect could cause fatigue from both sides, but it gives Northwestern a better shot of moving the chains.
I have to side with the underdog getting the points in a game with limited possessions. By locking up +13.5, we are getting over a field goal more than the opening price in a game where the total was moved five points towards the under. That's decent enough value for me to back Northwestern to get the running game going and stay within the number.
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