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August 1, 2014

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College football by the odds: Vegas preview of opening games

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Steve Marcus

A gambler counts out cash while making a bet in January 2011.

Enough with the talk of looking forward to the “first football weekend.”

Those are the words of several bettors in reference to the first full slate of college football, on tap for Saturday, or even for Sept. 8-9, when the NFL dives into the season to create the customary one-two punch of gridiron gambling.

Why wait that long? The city’s most popular — and in my not-so-humble opinion, best — game to wager on makes a triumphant return to sports books’ big screens starting Thursday night.

Twelve Football Bowl Subdivision — enter annual gripe over how much better “Division 1-A” was as a title — games kick off another season over Thursday and Friday. Four ranked teams, whatever that counts for, are in action to whet bettors’ appetite for what’s to come over the next six months until Super Bowl 47 wraps up in New Orleans.

We’re so enthused that we’re dedicating a special blog post solely to the first wave of games. We’ll put together a weekly college football betting forecast once the season gets into swing following the same format, but this one extends to only Thursday and Friday.

Read below for a breakdown of the major games on the betting board, quick slants on the rest and picks to top it all off.

No. 9 South Carolina -6.5 at Vanderbilt; over/under 45

4:00 Thursday, ESPN

The combination of second-year coach James Franklin, 15 returning starters and a surprise bowl appearance last year have made the Commodores a team with considerable hype.

Yes, there’s hype for Vanderbilt football. So much so, in fact, that this line has stayed steady since opening. South Carolina jumped to a 7-point favorite briefly at the LVH Superbook before trending back to 6.5.

The Commodores went 6-0 against the spread at Vanderbilt Stadium last year, but has failed to cover in three of the last four meetings against the Gamecocks. In addition, the road team has covered in six of the last nine meetings.

Many pieces of a South Carolina defense that wreaked havoc on Vanderbilt last year — the ‘Dores only crossed the 50-yard line once in the final three quarters — are back. Most notably, SEC Freshman of the Year Jadeveon Clowney and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor return.

Aaron Rodgers’ younger brother, Jordan Rodgers, leads Vanderbilt’s offense, which is exciting until the realization that they aren’t as interchangeable as say, the Olsen twins. Jordan is more of a rusher. His last name has somehow covered up the fact that he threw more interceptions, 10, than touchdowns, nine, last year and only completed 50 percent of his passes.

Minnesota -8 at UNLV; over/under 50

8:00 Thursday, CBS Sports Network

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UNLV running back Dionza Bradford takes a break during practice Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

True, this matchup is in no way one of the premier games of the first two days, but it’s local so we’ll run with it.

It’s also increasingly difficult to handicap, not uncommon when two teams this lowly clash at the beginning of the year. UNLV’s Bobby Hauck is entering his third year with a combined 4-21 record. Minnesota has gone 6-18 the last two years.

But, believe it or not, there are things for bettors to like on both sides. UNLV has covered the spread in eight of 10 games at Sam Boyd Stadium under Hauck. The Golden Gophers have actually fared well against the number, 14-8 in the last two seasons, despite the pervading sense of underachievement.

Receiver-turned-quarterback MarQueis Gray helped Minnesota cash tickets in four of its final five contests last season. The Rebels, mostly because of their porous defense, have gone over the total in 15 of 24 lined games in the last two years with two pushes.

But UNLV is expected to run the ball more Thursday to make use of an experienced backfield and a flaky Minnesota defensive front.

No. 24 Boise State +7 at No. 17 Michigan State; over/under 46

5:00 Friday, ESPN

Within a few hours of posting Michigan State as a 6.5-point favorite earlier this summer, bettors at the Golden Nugget drove the number up to 7.5.

The Spartans have continued as a popular pick against the Broncos all summer. Just a few days ago at the Supercontest Weekend seminar, several panelists agreed that Michigan State was a worthwhile play in week one.

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Boise State coach Chris Petersen greets Arizona State players after the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas game Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Boise State won the game 56-24.

Oddsmakers undervalued Boise State for years, but caught up to it last year. The Broncos went 5-8 against the spread for its first unprofitable betting season since 1996. They lose 15 of 22 starters off of that team, including all-time leading passer Kellen Moore, hence bettors’ hesitations to back them in the first game of the season on the road.

To play devil’s advocate, won’t Michigan State miss a lot of players too? The Spartans lose their own all-time leading passer, Kirk Cousins, and the majority of their offense but return Le'Veon Bell at running back.

Anyone getting flashbacks to the last three years when Boise State beat and covered against three BCS opponents? Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oregon can all attest that Michigan State has its hands full going against Boise State coach Chris Peterson.

Quick slants

• One of the first games of the year features two teams that have never had betting lines widespread in Nevada. University of Texas San Antonio and South Alabama make their FBS debuts Thursday in Mobile, Ala. South Alabama, which beat UTSA in double-overtime last year, is installed as a 7-point favorite. We’ll leave the handicapping to you in this one. Note: This game was re-scheduled to Saturday because of Hurricane Issac on Tuesday night.

• Speaking of new FBS schools, Massachusetts’ name will also light up betting boards all around for town for the first time Thursday. The Minutemen travel to Connecticut, where the Huskies are 24.5-point favorites. Oddsmakers have only made Connecticut a bigger favorite once in school history. The Huskies were 25-point favorites over Buffalo in 2004, and won 29-0.

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Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray (8) passes in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. Bray passed for 323 yards and three touchdowns as Tennessee won 52-14.

• Two of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray and North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon, square off Friday night. Despite NC State’s profitable 34-21-1 against the spread mark under coach Tom O’Brien, Tennessee is listed as a 3.5-point favorite at the neutral-site showdown at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

• Last year’s most profitable team against the spread, Louisiana Tech, is back to defend its title Thursday night. The Bulldogs host Texas A&M, who will start freshman quarter Johnny Manziel, as 7.5-point underdogs. The Bulldogs went 11-1 against the spread in winning the WAC championship during the 2011 regular season. Note: Game is postponed until Oct. 13 because of Hurricane Issac.

• On the other end of the spectrum, Akron has burned bettors’ money continually in recent years. The Zips haven’t posted a winning record against the spread in six years. They are 24-point underdogs against visiting Central Florida Thursday in coach Terry Bowden’s first game at the helm.

• The final ranked team playing before Saturday is No. 21 Stanford, which has gone 33-16-1 against the spread in the last four years. The Cardinal have thrived as big favorites. Despite the loss of quarterback Andrew Luck and his top two targets, they find themselves in the same position to open 2012. They are 25.5-point favorites over San Jose State at home.

Six pack of plays: Louisiana Tech +7.5, South Carolina -6.5, Boise State +7, Tennessee vs. North Carolina State over 52.5, Washington State vs. BYU under 63, Massachusetts +24.5

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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