It just means more, or so they like to say in the Southeastern Conference, but that hardly applies to Week 1 of the college football season in the SEC. Six league members are playing FCS opponents while four others are hosting low-level Group of Five teams, with point spreads in those games ranging from 26.5 up to 39.5.
Indeed, the SEC isn’t exactly opening with a bang. That leaves us with just four notable Week 1 games in the SEC: Florida at Utah on Thursday night, Virginia at Tennessee and South Carolina versus North Carolina (in Charlotte) on Saturday, and LSU versus Florida State (in Orlando) on Sunday night. Those latter two matchups are the most competitive from a point spread perspective, with the Gamecocks a universal 2.5-point underdog and most books offering the Tigers as 2.5-point favorites.
Since those are the four games sports bettors will have the most interest in, let’s quickly break down each from a wagering perspective.
Florida +4.5 Utah
The Gators upset the Utes 29-26 last season in the Swamp behind quarterback Anthony Richardson, who’s now in the NFL. Despite its mediocre overall record, Florida performed well as an underdog in 2022, covering in five of six games. Utah returns tons of players from last year’s Pac-12 title squad, which covered four of its last six and went 5-1 against the spread at home.
Tennessee -28 Virginia
The Volunteers were an excellent 10-3 against the spread last season, covering seven of their last nine. Tennessee also covered some huge lines against the likes of Ball State, Akron and Tennessee-Martin. Virginia suffered through a dreadful first season under coach Tony Elliott, going 3-7 overall and 4-6 against the spread, and then saw star quarterback Brennan Armstrong transfer to N.C. State.
South Carolina +2.5 North Carolina
The Gamecocks were 4-4 against the spread last season as an underdog, and have won four of their last five matchups outright against the Tar Heels. North Carolina ended the 2022 season in a tailspin, dropping four straight and covering just two of its last six. In four seasons under coach Mack Brown, UNC is 3-7-1 against the spread as a favorite away from Chapel Hill.
LSU -2.5 Florida State
LSU dropped a 24-23 thriller to Florida State as 3.5-point favorites last year in New Orleans, part of a season that saw the Tigers go 8-6 against the spread including just 4-4 as a favorite. The Seminoles finished 10-3 overall and 8-5 against the spread, covering four of their last six in a breakthrough season under coach Mike Norvell.
Saban against the G5
These Week 1 SEC games against Group of Five opponents can still present value opportunities for bettors, as we witnessed on several occasions in 2022. Kentucky last season was a 27-point favorite over Northern Illinois, and survived by eight. Auburn won by the same margin over San Jose State, which came to the Plains as a 23.5-point underdog. Then, there was the nightmare scenario lived by Texas A&M (and anyone who bet on them), which lost outright at home last season to 18-point underdog Appalachian State.
Might we see any similar point-spread surprises from G5 SEC opponents this week? Ball State, which is a 26.5-point underdog at Kentucky, is coming off a 4-7 2022 campaign that opened with a 59-10 blitzing at Tennessee. Massachusetts (yes, we know, technically an independent), a 39.5-point underdog at Auburn, beat New Mexico State in Week 0 for its first victory over an FBS opponent in 22 months. New Mexico, a 38-point underdog at Texas A&M, went 2-10 last year and heads to College Station on a seven-game skid against the spread.
On paper the best candidate to pull a point-spread upset might seem Middle Tennessee State, a 39.5-point underdog at Alabama. The Blue Raiders went 8-5 last season, covering at Miami (Fla.) and beating San Diego State in a bowl game to finish on a four-game win streak. But here are Nick Saban’s last seven results against G5 opponents: beat Utah State 55-0, beat Louisiana-Monroe 63-7, beat Southern Mississippi 63-14, beat New Mexico State 62-10, beat So Miss 49-7, beat Arkansas State 57-7, beat Fresno State 41-10.
You have to go back to 2017, and a 41-23 victory over Colorado State, to find a G5 opponent that’s been remotely competitive against Alabama. The Rams, down 41-10 in that game with 14:51 left, covered as 31-point underdogs thanks to two bad-beat TDs allowed in the final minutes. So, as Walter White would say: tread lightly.
Nick Saban has turned Alabama into a QB factory in recent years 😤 pic.twitter.com/a6YwMBXQIp— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 9, 2023
Wildcats go under
The most consistent total wager last season in the SEC? That would be Kentucky, which went under in every game save its close scrape against Northern Illinois—and remember, that was with future NFL draft pick Will Levis under center. The Wildcats have another quality quarterback this season in N.C. State transfer Devin Leary, but head coach Mark Stoops loves to win behind the running game and defense.
Despite its struggles under former coach Bryan Harsin, Auburn still managed to go over the total in six of its final seven games last season—a trend we’d expect to continue with Hugh Freeze now in charge and a capable quarterback behind center in Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne. Texas A&M went under in four straight to open last season as well as two of its last three, and we all wait to see how that might change with new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino now (allegedly) calling plays instead of head coach Jimbo Fisher.
South Carolina went over in four of its last five, as quarterback Spencer Rattler found his footing with the Gamecocks. Despite a revived offense under coach Josh Heupel, Tennessee fell under the total in four of its last six games last year thanks to a defense that staunched the likes of Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Clemson. Alabama was once as reliable an over as you’d find in the SEC—but the Tide fell under the total in seven of 13 games last season, and that was with No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young at quarterback.
SEC pick 3, Week 1
Here are three of the best picks for the opening week:
Top 10 SEC games (week 1 edition) 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ApJSCTF9vi— Saturday Down South (@SatDownSouth) August 29, 2023
Utah -5.5 Florida
Can new quarterback Graham Mertz turn the Gators around? He completed just 59 percent of his passes at Wisconsin, and can’t run like Richardson—which was the key in last season’s upset of Utah in the Swamp. Meanwhile the Utes are loaded, at home, and knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff.
Tennessee vs. Virginia under 57.5
Virginia’s offense last season ranked 103rd out of 131 FBS teams, and that was with a veteran quarterback in Armstrong. Now the Cavaliers turn to Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett, who should find points very tough to come by against a Tennessee defense that featured the best pass rush in the SEC last year.
Auburn vs. Massachusetts over 51.5
With a proven offensive coordinator in Philip Montgomery and a strong-armed QB in Thorne, expect Freeze to flip the switch on the Auburn offense immediately. The Tigers have depth at running back, talent at receiver, and an opening opponent in UMass that allowed an average of 31 points per game a season ago.