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College football expert Brett Ciancia makes his OddsChecker debut to give us three picks for this weekend's action

Clemson vs. Wake Forest

Clemson now holds the FBS record for most wins in a 5-year span (69) to go along with three undefeated regular seasons and two national titles.  Oh, and they’ve won the ACC all five years.

But how has this dynasty stacked up against-the-spread?  Quite well. 

In the 2020 opener, Clemson is favored by 30+ points against a league foe that won eight games last year and went to a bowl.  And before you laugh at that gaudy point spread, consider how Clemson has handled their double-digit favorite roles the past five years:

As 10+ point favorites:  59% ATS (31-21-2)

As 20+ point favorites:  57% ATS (20-15-1)

As 30+ point favorites:  63% ATS (10-6)

That last interval, the heavy favorite role, has been especially profitable for Clemson betters.  It’s almost as if they can’t set the spread large enough, at the extremes.

All of the national attention is on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, and rightfully so.  Lawrence may be the first overall NFL draft pick in April, while Etienne is the first back ever in FBS history to average 7+ yards per carry in three straight seasons.

But digging in deeper than the offensive star power, there is a major mismatch in the trenches.  Clemson’s 2018 national championship team was known for their defensive line, and this 2020 unit will reclaim their spot as the nation’s best.  All four 2019 starters are back, and they will get an instant boost from two 5-star freshman, Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee who was America’s #1 recruit overall.  They will force havoc on a young, inexperienced offensive line.  Wake Forest had a relative strength at offensive line back in 2018 and dubbed themselves the “Beef Boys.”  Well, that entire crew is now gone, and Wake Forest recruits towards the bottom of the 66 Power 5 programs (61st, 5-year average).

Clemson has the nation’s best quarterback, best running back, best defensive line, and best defensive coordinator.  They also thrive as 30+ point favorites, and that trend will continue in the primetime opener Saturday night.  Wake Forest is just 10-16 ATS over the past two seasons, lost their starting QB, and now their best offensive player has opted out (receiver Sage Surratt).


PICK: CLEMSON -33 @ -110

North Carolina vs. Syracuse

Syracuse has just one winning season over head coach Dino Babers’ four years here.  They also struggled against-the-spread last year, going just 33% ATS (4-8).  They finished as one of the nation’s worst defenses last year (8th percentile in Pick Six Previews’ opponent-adjusted metric), and to make matters worse, return the least defensive production in America this year.

Not to mention the scheme shift.  Babers brought in Tony White from Arizona State to run the 3-3-5, an outlier base defense that only a handful of Power 5 teams use.  It is a tough task to install this unique system in any offseason, let alone one without spring ball, summer, and a limited fall camp.

It doesn’t help having to open up against a high-powered, up-tempo, spread offense like what UNC will bring north to the Carrier Dome this Saturday.

UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo was one of the many coaches I spoke with in preparation for my annual season preview book.  I was impressed with his level of detail and his offseason strategy of having his young quarterback Sam Howell study NFL game tape of all the different defenses he may face in 2020.  The offense has air raid passing concepts, but also ultimately wants to establish a powerful, downhill running game in the middle.

Longo has the athletes and personnel to field a Top 5 offense in America this fall.  Among Power 5 quarterbacks playing this fall, Howell was #2 in quarterback rating behind only Clemson superstar Trevor Lawrence.  Howell, plus running back Michael Carter and wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown all landed on Pick Six Previews’ 2020 preseason All-ACC teams.  Five of their seven linemen return.

Over the first half of the 2019 season, UNC’s offense placed in the 60th percentile, but then rose to the 96th percentile over the final half of the year.  Near those intervals, UNC opened 2019 4-6 ATS, but closed on a 3-game win streak both straight-up and ATS.  That’s a lot of momentum heading into 2020, the second year under Mack Brown’s staff.

No other preseason publication in America had UNC ranked higher (#14) than I did.  They are poised for an offensive explosion, and all six of their 2019 losses were by a score or less.  Those tend to reverse in a coach’s second season, especially with a more veteran roster.

Meanwhile, I rated Syracuse dead last in the ACC, and #62 of the 66 Power 5 programs.

I hope the readers locked in the opening line of -21, but still, look for a blowout here.


PICK:  UNC -23 @ -110

Duke vs. Notre Dame

Notre Dame has gone without a national championship since 1988 – but this team has the look of an 80s team: an efficient passer, powerful offensive line and rushing attack, and a nasty defensive front seven.

Duke does add former Clemson backup quarterback Chase Brice, who famously saved the perfect season against Syracuse in 2018.  However, Brice alone is not enough to fix this offense, which over the last six games of 2019 was dead last in America.

Even with their national fan base, and often extra media attention, Notre Dame has consistently out-performed the spread.  They are 23-14-2 ATS (62%) over the past three seasons.  That includes 55% ATS as double-digit favorites over the same interval.

Duke finally fell back to Earth after years of David Cutcliffe flying his program under the radar ATS.  They haven’t had a winning season ATS since 2016.


PICK:  NOTRE DAME -20 @ -110


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