Spread Options: College football Week 1 picks against the spread

College football is here, and Week 1 will bring us the action from Thursday all the way through Monday.

With so many games to sort through, I narrowed things down to my seven favorite plays. I'm hoping to get off to a good start in the first full betting column of the season.

Let's hope all the offseason research pays off.

(Note: All times ET, games listed chronologically)

Ball State at Kentucky

Time: Noon | TV: SECN | Line: UK -26.5 | Total: 49.5

I’m very high on Kentucky this year and think a big improvement on offense is in store. The Wildcats brought back Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and added Devin Leary as a graduate transfer quarterback. Leary, when healthy, is an upgrade over Will Levis. Levis brought the potential for more flashy plays, but Leary is more consistent on a down-to-down basis. He should mesh excellently with Coen, who called UK’s offense in 2021 before departing for the NFL.

Now Coen is back in Lexington and has more weapons to work with than he did when he transformed the unit in 2021. In addition to Leary, Kentucky brought back its top three receivers, added Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis at RB and made upgrades to the offensive line.

Even though workhorse running back Carson Steele left for UCLA, I think Ball State has enough on offense to put some points on the board in this one. The Cardinals won’t need to score much for this to go over the total. Kentucky could score 40-plus points in this game.

Pick: Over 49.5

Washington State at Colorado State

Time: 7 p.m. | TV: CBSSN | Line: WSU -11.5 | Total: 54.5

Washington State lost Eric Morris to North Texas but upgraded at offensive coordinator by bringing in Ben Arbuckle from Western Kentucky. Cam Ward was a very hyped FCS transfer last year but has been overlooked amid the Pac-12’s talented crop of quarterbacks. Ward has the chance to put up huge numbers in Arbuckle’s system, beginning with a tough opener in Fort Collins.

Colorado State could be one of the most improved teams in the country. CSU went 3-9 in Jay Norvell’s first season and really struggled on offense. But the Rams overhauled their line and brought in some additional weapons for promising young QB Clay Millen. Norvell had some high-powered offenses during his time at Nevada, and I think CSU could take a huge leap forward.

Washington State’s defense was quite disruptive last year. The Cougars have a few good pass-rushers and return Chau Smith-Wade at cornerback, but they lost their top three defensive tackles and top three linebackers. CSU can have some success playing at home.

This is a game I’ve had my eye on for a while, and the total dipping gives me some pause, but I’m going to trust my initial instinct with this one and play the over.

Pick: Over 54.5

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward throws a pass during the first half against Washington on Nov. 26, 2022, in Pullman, Washington. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward throws a pass during the first half against Washington on Nov. 26, 2022, in Pullman, Washington. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Toledo at Illinois

Time: 7:30 p.m. | TV: BTN | Line: Illinois -9.5 | Total: 46.5

Illinois wants to be more explosive on offense this year, but Toledo has a pretty good defense. However, the strength of the Toledo defense is in the secondary, not up front. Even though RB Chase Brown left for the NFL, the Illini should have a pretty clear path to victory by running the ball and trying to get the ball to some of the speedier wideouts in space via easy throws for new QB Luke Altmyer.

On the other side, Illinois lost three defensive backs to the NFL, but I trust Bret Bielema and his staff to have the secondary ready for Toledo’s passing attack. Having one of the best defensive lines in the country will certainly help that cause. Illinois should be able generate a push with just its down linemen, leaving the back seven to defend in space. Toledo has a good QB in Dequan Finn, but it’s going to be a tough day for the Rockets in Champaign.

Pick: Illinois -9.5

South Alabama at No. 24 Tulane

Time: 8 p.m. | TV: ESPNU | Line: Tulane -6.5 | Total: 51.5

Tulane went from two wins in 2021 to 12 wins in 2022 as it won the AAC and upset USC in the Cotton Bowl. Entering 2023, Tulane returns star QB Michael Pratt and four offensive line starters, but most of the offense's top playmakers have moved on. That includes star running back Tyjae Spears, who was a major difference-maker. There's also a lot of turnover on defense.

Tulane remains one of the best teams in the AAC, but this is a dangerous season opener vs. South Alabama. USA returns 18 starters and should be plenty motivated after getting blown out in the New Orleans Bowl last year. I think it'll be hard for Tulane to recapture last year's magic as it looks to integrate some new pieces. Tulane also could be looking ahead to next week's visit from Ole Miss. This feels like too many points.

Pick: South Alabama +6.5

Coastal Carolina at UCLA

Time: 10:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Line: UCLA -14.5 | Total: 65.5

Don’t overlook UCLA this season. Even with longtime starting QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the NFL, Chip Kelly’s offense should be excellent once again. Ethan Garbers, DTR’s backup the past two seasons, will get the start, and five-star freshman Dante Moore will also see the field at QB. No matter who is running the offense, the Bruins have the weapons to put up a huge number vs. Coastal Carolina. Look out for Cal transfer J. Michael Sturdivant at receiver.

Coastal Carolina returns star QB Grayson McCall, but the coaching transition from Jamey Chadwell to Tim Beck is a substantial downgrade for me. The Chanticleers have talent on offense, but I don’t think they can keep up with UCLA over 60 minutes. Coastal’s defense just isn’t very good, and I think UCLA actually has some NFL-caliber players on defense.

Pick: UCLA -14.5

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks back to the sideline during a timeout in the Sun Bowl against Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, 2022, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks back to the sideline during a timeout in the Sun Bowl against Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, 2022, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

No. 18 Oregon State at San Jose State

Time: 3:30 p.m. (Sunday) | TV: CBS | Line: Oregon State -16.5 | Total: 54.5

I’m not as high on Oregon State as a lot of others, but I think the Beavers will be able to run the ball at will vs. San Jose State. The Beavers have a stellar offensive line and two excellent running backs with Damien Martinez and Deshaun Fenwick returning.

San Jose State’s top two defensive linemen from last year — Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall — are no longer with the team. Those two won the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (Hall in 2020, Fehoko in 2022), and Fehoko was a fifth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys.

I don’t trust Oregon State to cover such a big number, as I think the defense takes a step back compared to last season (Omar Speights transferring to LSU was a big loss). San Jose State has a very good QB in Chevan Cordeiro and enough play-makers to put some points on the board, especially at home.

Pick: Over 54.5

No. 5 LSU vs. No. 8 Florida State

Time: 7:30 p.m. (Sunday) | TV: ABC | Line: LSU -2.5 | Total: 54.5

There’s a lot to like about both of these teams, but I think there’s a clear weakness on the LSU side that Florida State can exploit. I don’t have confidence in LSU’s secondary. The Tigers have a transfer-heavy unit, particularly at cornerback. I don’t like the matchup there going against the FSU receiving corps led by Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman.

Additionally, I am a bit skeptical about LSU’s ability to generate big plays on offense. The offensive line is very good, but the running back group is just OK, and Jayden Daniels hasn’t been a great downfield passer. Daniels avoided turnovers and was excellent with his legs last year, but I think he needs to hit some big throws down the field for LSU to win this game. LSU has great receivers, too, but can Daniels hang in the pocket and pull the trigger when there are plays to be made?

I’d obviously prefer this if I could get a field goal, but I’ll side with FSU as a short underdog.

Pick: Florida State +2.5