Thursday Night College Football Opening Night
While college football had a brief preview last weekend with six teams in action the Thursday night schedule will officially allow the first full weekend of the season to commence. While lacking a prominent headlining game on the schedule, three major conference teams are in action while the Big Ten and the American are featuring rare opening night conference games. Here is a quick look at the four games on the schedule Thursday night.
Match-up: Central Florida Knights at Connecticut Huskies
Venue: At Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:00 PM ET, ESPNU
Line: UCF -23, Over/Under 75
Last Meeting: 2017 at UCF, UCF (-38) 49-24
Central Florida is a fitting team to kick off the 2018 schedule Thursday night as they were the only team to go undefeated in the 2017 season, even claiming the national title locally while finishing the season with an impressive Peach Bowl win over Auburn on New Year’s Day. The success had a cost as Scott Frost left for Nebraska after just two seasons and another former Big XII quarterback is now leading the way in Orlando with Josh Heupel hired from Missouri where he was the offensive coordinator. Heupel has McKenzie Milton under center to help the transition with Milton passing for over 4,000 yards last season with 37 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.
Connecticut has limited expectations this season, the second campaign in Randy Edsall’s second stop leading the Huskies. This squad finished just 3-9 last season with a major transition moving toward an up-tempo offense that leans on the passing game. The numbers improved with scoring and production up dramatically last season but the defensive numbers worsened from Bob Diaco’s 2016 squad by a similar increment. Few starters return on the rebuilding defense for 2018 but this should be a team that can take another step forward offensively.
UCF had just survived a close call at SMU last season when they hosted Connecticut as an 8-0 squad that had climbed into the top 15 of the national polls. The Knights grabbed an early lead but wound up caught in a close game into the fourth quarter as the Huskies trailed by only 11 before UCF added three fourth quarter touchdowns to win comfortably 49-24 but finishing well short of the massive spread with only a 519-413 yardage edge for the Knights.
This year the spread has been adjusted downward significantly but the total is priced about 10 points higher than last season with Connecticut expected to be a productive offensive team that passes often. Quarterback David Pindell had modest numbers taking just over a third of the snaps for Connecticut last season and like Milton he is smaller in stature than prototypical quarterbacks and has good mobility as the Huskies will aim for a shootout result.
Historical Trends: Central Florida is 15-21-1 ATS as a road favorite since 2003, Connecticut is 29-18-1 ATS as a home underdog since 2001.
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Match-up: Northwestern Wildcats at Purdue Boilermakers
Venue: At Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Purdue -1.5, Over/Under 52.5
Last Meeting: 2017 at Northwestern, Northwestern (-6.5) 23-13
Northwestern and Purdue both made the postseason last year out of the Big Ten West but both could face tougher paths this season. The West teams draw five of nine conference games on the road this season and both squads will play two of three crossover games with heavyweight East squads. The non-conference schedules for both teams are also difficult as this toss-up opening game will carry a lot of weight towards the season goals.
Last season Northwestern had a 20-0 lead in the first half before Purdue rallied for a competitive finish, winding up with a yardage edge for the game but never getting closer than the 10-point final margin in the second half. The Boilermakers nearly spoiled the favorite cover before committing the only turnover in the game inside the 10-yard line with about a minute to go. The Wildcats have won in this series each of the past four seasons and in six of the last nine meetings since 2008, going 5-2 ATS in those games.
Northwestern won 45-17 at Purdue two years ago but that was before Jeff Brohm took over the team. The former Western Kentucky head coach led a successful first season with nearly as many wins as Darrell Hazell had produced in four seasons. The offense displayed much more success running the ball last season while the defense made a massive improvement statistically. The defense will be the biggest area of concern this season with heavy personnel losses from last season while the offense has many key players back including both quarterbacks that split time last season with David Blough and Elijah Sindelar expected to share time again this season.
Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 13th season at Northwestern and the program has been to three straight bowl games with 27 wins the past three years combined. While Wisconsin is the favorite in the West, many see Northwestern as second in line after posting a 7-2 conference record last season. This game will be critical in any entertainment of that notion as the next two Big Ten games will be against Michigan and Michigan State. Clayton Thorson returns after a steady 2017 season at quarterback but 1,300-yard rusher Justin Jackson will need to be replaced.
Historical Trends: Northwestern is 10-6 ATS at Purdue since 1982, Purdue is 15-26 ATS at home since 2012.
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Match-up: New Mexico State Aggies at Minnesota Golden Gophers
Venue: At TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 7:00 PM ET, BTN
Line: Minnesota -20.5, Over/Under 45.5
Last Meeting: 2013 at New Mexico State, Minnesota (-16.5) 44-21
New Mexico State was one of the teams that played last Saturday and the Aggies had a forgettable opening performance with very poor results for the offense in a 26-7 loss hosting Wyoming. It appears that replacing long-time quarterback Tyler Rogers will be a challenge as the Aggies posted just 144 passing yards behind Matt Romero and Nick Jeanty. The Aggies also wound up with negative rushing yards in the game and the only score for the team came with 1:16 remaining and the outcome well past decided.
New Mexico State is on the road the next two weeks with this a tricky turnaround going from Saturday night and traveling to Minnesota for a Thursday night game. The poor result last week sours momentum from a great 2017 season with a 7-6 finish in Doug Martin’s fifth season, getting the team’s first bowl appearance and win since 1960. The Aggies now have little margin for error for a return trip playing an Independent schedule. While some challenges for the offense replacing Rogers along with the top rusher and receiver from last season were expected, the defense was considered a possible strength with nine starters back after showing great improvement last season. Wyoming rushed for 312 yards last week on 5.5 yards per carry which should mean a favorable opportunity for Minnesota.
Amidst great self-promotion and fanfare P.J. Fleck’s first season with the Gophers fizzled as a 3-0 start wound up with a 5-7 finish in the standings and only two Big Ten wins. The offense was among the worst of all power conference programs with only 22 points per game and 309 yards per game. The answer this season will be a freshman quarterback as Zack Annexstad was a mild surprise to win the job this summer. The Gophers do have a veteran offensive line and should remain a quality defensive team looking for a breakthrough second season.
The opening result for New Mexico State has meant a growing favorite spread for Minnesota with the Gophers failing as a heavy favorite in opening games the past two seasons in narrow wins. After being shutout in each of the final two games of the season last year pressure will grow on Fleck and with a more challenging game next week at home this is a critical game for Minnesota but also a spot where the Aggies, with a game under their belt, can certainly play better that they did last week.
Historical Trends: New Mexico State is 16-23-1 ATS as a double-digit underdog since 2012, Minnesota is 17-24 ATS as a home favorite since 2007.
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Match-up: Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Tulane Green Wave
Venue: At Yulman Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana
Time/TV: Thursday, Aug. 30, 8:00 PM ET, CBSC
Line: Wake Forest -5.5, Over/Under 55
Last Meeting: 2016 at Wake Forest, Wake Forest (-14.5) 7-3
These teams opened the 2016 season in Winston-Salem with a 7-3 win for Wake Forest in a game with no second half scoring. Wake Forest won despite only 10 first downs and 175 total yards in what was a great defensive showing for Tulane in the debut of Willie Fritz on the sidelines. Fritz led a very successful two-year run at Georgia Southern but has gone 4-8 and 5-7 the past two seasons at Tulane. The Wave have a team capable of taking the next step with most of last season’s offense back in action but the schedule ahead is difficult, particularly on the road. For a bowl season Tulane will need an upset at some point and this home opener is likely one of the best opportunities.
Tulane only lost twice at home last season falling to South Florida by six and to Cincinnati by one and wins at home over Army and Houston offer some promise. Jonathan Banks is an experienced quarterback that had solid production passing and rushing last season while LSU transfer Justin McMillan is also on the roster. Tulane had a season of regression on defense last year and with minimal returning experience improvement isn’t likely for a Wave team that allowed 5.4 yards per rush last season.
Wake Forest had problems stopping the run last season and one of the worst losses of the season came against another triple-option team falling 38-24 at Georgia Tech. The Demon Deacons have returning experience but replacing long time quarterback John Wolford has been a challenge. Kendall Hinton has been suspended for the first three games while Jamie Newman is injured as freshman Sam Hartman is expected to start. He’ll likely lean on the top returning receiver Greg Dortch who can also be a factor on special teams.
Wake Forest won eight games last season and Dave Clawson has returned the program to a respectable place. A breakthrough season of contention isn’t expected in the tough ACC Atlantic. Holding on to a bowl bid isn’t a given either as this is an important game in reaching the needed win count for Wake Forest as well with Notre Dame on the non-conference schedule and no easy outs on the ACC slate.
Historical Trends: Wake Forest is 12-18-2 ATS as a road favorite since 1982, Tulane is 22-30-2 ATS as a home underdog since 2004.
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