2021 Group of 5 Football Picks & Predictions: Fresno State Returns Lots of Talent
It’s hard to find market inefficiencies. There are so many eyes on every level of American sports that it’s exceedingly rare for an amateur bettor to find an advantage against the oddsmakers who set win totals and spreads for sportsbooks. The books know what they’re doing, and few of us are smart enough to beat them on a consistent, profit-making basis.
Group of 5 college football games can be an exception, if you pay close enough attention. They generate less action than games in the five power conferences, and the sport is so big that it’s impossible for every bookmaker to have a pulse on every Group of 5 team. Number-crunching gets them most of the way there, but I’ve always felt that college football’s immense size gives smart bettors a valuable opportunity at the G5 level.
Let’s see if we can capitalize with some futures bets for this fall. The odds here are via DraftKings Sportsbook and will likely vary depending on where you place your bets. They cover teams across the Group of 5 leagues: the AAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West, MAC, and Conference USA. Check your sportsbook’s policy on canceled games, which might be a factor yet again this year. Cancelations might affect the status of particular bets.
2021 Group of 5 Football Picks & Predictions
Fresno State Over 6 Wins @ -110
Historically, Fresno State has a good deal of upside. The Bulldogs have posted four double-digit win seasons this century, and they’ve been a consistent bowl team even in their lesser years. That has changed recently, as Fresno has missed a bowl in three of its last five seasons (not counting 2020, when it went 3-3 and didn’t play a postseason game). I expect the program to trend back upward in Kalen DeBoer’s second year as head coach.
The Bulldogs have a lot of talent returning, most notably including Washington transfer QB Jake Haener, who might be the best passer in the Mountain West this year. Running back Ronnie Rivers and receiver Jalen Cropper join him to give Fresno maybe the best skill position triplets in the Mountain West. I think the chances of a lost bet are fairly low, with a win and a push (in that order) the likeliest outcomes. Other than a visit to Oregon, every game is winnable.
Appalachian State Over 8.5 Wins @ -115
The Mountaineers have been a shockingly consistent force in the Sun Belt since jumping up from FCS in the middle of the last decade. No team in recent times has mastered the FCS-to-FBS transition as thoroughly as App. The ‘Neers have won at least nine games every year since 2014 (their first in FBS), and I don’t see any reason the streak should end in 2021. Chase Brice, a transfer QB from Duke and Clemson who once backed up Trevor Lawrence, should play well enough in App’s system for the program to keep piling up wins.
Houston Under 8.5 Wins @ -120
On New Year’s Day 2019, Dana Holgorsen left West Virginia and accepted the richest coaching deal in Group of 5 history to head to Houston and the AAC: Five years, $20 million. It hasn’t worked out. Holgorsen’s first year was bizarre and involved a plan to redshirt star QB D’Eriq King and save his eligibility for 2020. King in fact transferred to Miami, where he’s completed his development into one of the country’s best players. The Cougars had a few dominant performances last year but finished 3-5 anyway. They don’t have any massive weaknesses, QB Clayton Tune will be one of the AAC’s better players, and they could have the best non-Cincinnati defense in the conference. But the AAC is incredibly competitive, and Houston’s only freebie wins are against FCS team Grambling, de-facto FCS team UConn, and perhaps Temple. Everything else will be at least a little dangerous, and I think 8-4 is likelier than 9-3.
Kent State Over 5.5 Wins @ +115
The Golden Flashes will be one of the highest-scoring teams in the country on both sides of the ball. As in: They score a bunch, and they give up a bunch. The schedule is a significant problem, as Kent is extremely likely to go 0-3 in against Maryland, Texas A&M, and Iowa, with a lone non-conference win probably coming against FCS VMI.
My bet here is that the Flashes can go 5-3 in the MAC, where two of their tougher opponents (Buffalo and Ohio) lost their head coaches in the middle of the offseason and where they’ll get to play some of the worst teams in the FBS, like Bowling Green and Akron.
North Texas Over 4 Wins @ +105
The Mean Green have trended hard in the wrong direction the last two years. After consecutive nine-win seasons and one of the most fun trick plays ever in 2018, UNT didn’t have a lot of success or fun in 2019 and 2020. In ‘19, they wasted the senior season of excellent QB Mason Fine and went 4-8. In ‘20, COVID hit the roster particularly hard, including taking out most of the defensive backfield at the same time, and the Mean Green went 4-6. I expect Littrell to right the ship somewhat this year. Austin Aune and DeAndre Torrey should be Conference USA’s best QB-RB tandem, and the schedule is not prohibitive. As long as UNT doesn’t slip up against either UTEP or FCS Northwestern State, the path to the over is clear. UNT can find three wins from a group of opponents that includes Louisiana Tech, FIU, Rice, UTSA, and Southern Miss.