This article is part of our FanDuel College Football series.
We have arrived at the return of college football, albeit in an appetizer form for the main course to come in Week 1. We also have the return of fans to the stadiums for the first time since 2019, but that didn't stop us from battling it out in our digital arenas last season. Two of the three games on the season-opening slate feature spreads of 17-plus points, while the conference clash between Nebraska and Illinois is the closest at Nebraska -7. There don't look to be any concerns with weather for any of the three games, so it should be a pleasant day for some football across the country. The teams are fairly healthy entering the season, but that figures to change once game speed
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Week Zero Plays
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA ($12,000) vs. Hawaii
Give me mobility at the quarterback position against a defense that has struggled to cover the run. That's exactly what you get with DTR going up against a Rainbow Warriors defensive 11 that yielded 211.7 rushing yards per game, 5.0 yards per carry and 1.9 rushing touchdowns per contest. Sure, you're going to have to lay down a large chunk of your salary on it, but quarterback is a position where a player with upside can post massive returns. Thompson-Robinson topped 30 points in three of his five games last season and 40 once despite playing all conference foes. Hawaii isn't on the same level as the Bruins' Pac-12 opponents, so I'm expecting big things from DTR to kick off the 2021 campaign. It doesn't hurt that the Bruins also sport an expected score of 42.75 in the contest.
Chevan Cordeiro, Hawaii ($9,500) vs. at UCLA
Speaking of mobile quarterbacks, Cordeiro fits the bill in that regard, rushing at for at least 8 yards in three of the team's eight games last year and a total of seven touchdowns. He possesses similar upside to that of Jake Haener at a discount rate because of the matchup, but quarterbacks who can sling it did just that against UCLA last season. Seven of the eight quarterbacks to face the Bruins' defense last season finished with more passing yards than their season average. Cordeiro's 231.4 passing yards per contest ranked 36th nationally last season and he should have a good shot at besting that average in the opener. When added in with his ground production and the fact that Hawai'i figures to trail for most of the game, this could have the makings of a big outing for him.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska ($8,600) at Illinois
We may as well keep the theme rolling to round things out. Martinez had his ups and downs at quarterback last year but closed the season out strong with three straight games of 22 or more fantasy points and two topping 30. Martinez didn't start last season's game versus the Fighting Illini but came in during the fourth quarter to lead the Huskers on a scoring drive, finishing the day 3-for-4 passing for 43 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for six touchdowns over the last four games and could have a field day against a Fighting Illini defense that couldn't stop anyone last season, surrendering nearly 35 points per game. A new coaching staff led by Bret Bielema could eventually improve that but I wouldn't bet on big gains out of the gate.
Ronnie Rivers, Fresno State ($10,500) vs. UConn
Rivers is the belle of the ball in the run game on this slate and has the right combination of game script and matchup to run wild against UConn. The last time we saw the Huskies take the field in 2019, the defense that took the field surrendered an average of 223.6 rushing yards per contest, good for 123rd nationally out of 130 teams in FBS. The year off in 2020 could change some personnel, but it doesn't mean things are set to dramatically improve. As the largest favorites (-27.5) on the slate by 10 points and a slate-high expected score of 45.25, I'll gladly go big to kick off the running back position.
Kevin Mensah, UConn ($7,800) at Fresno State
Speaking of Achilles' heels of teams, the running game was also the big problem for the Bulldogs last season, allowing 212.3 rushing yards per game and 14 rushing scores over just six contests, not to mention 5.2 yards per carry. Mensah is the key returning piece in the Huskie's offense returning for 2021 and has one of the better combos of stable carry share and matchup. Mensah rushed for over 1,000 yards for a second straight season in 2019 and handled more than 200 carries for a second straight campaign, averaging 18.8 per game. While game script may eventually lead the Huskies away from consistently running the ball, Mensah should have enough time to rack up some fantasy points before that happens.
Nebraska starting RB at Illinois
The big question entering the weekend is who will lead the Huskers' backfield to open the season against the Fighting Illini. The job is reportedly down to Sevion Morrison ($4,400), Gabe Ervin ($6,500) and Markese Stepp ($7,200). This is a situation where it will be very important to monitor the pregame warmups, as the Nebraska coaching staff reportedly is looking to get a lead back that can handle 20-plus carries per game. It's unclear if the plan is to go that direction in the opener, but the upside figures to be there for any of the trio if that winds up being the case. Morrison in particular would provide oodles of fantasy value if he lands the lead job against an Illinois defense that yielded 5.1 yards per carry and a slate-worst 230.1 rushing yards per game in 2020. The contest is expected to be a close one (Huskers favored by seven) and it's a conference clash to open the season, so it's unlikely we will see starters come off the field any point in this one.
Greg Dulcich, UCLA ($8,600) vs. Hawaii
Dulcich claimed five touchdown passes a season ago and came into his own down the stretch, reeling in three between the last two contests. He returns to an established connection with Dorian Thompson-Robinson. In the five games DTR was under center -- he missed two due to injury -- Dulcich averaged 15.7 points per game. His targets also increased by more than half a target per contest with DTR at the helm, including seven per contest in the last two games of 2020. He and Kyle Phillips should lead the way in the Bruins passing attack this season and Dulcich is much more of a scoring threat.
Josh Kelly, Fresno State ($7,100) vs. UConn
Jalen Cropper garners the most attention in Fresno State's passing attack, and rightly so given the way he exploded down the stretch last season. That being said, Kelly has also established himself as a clear-cut starter for a Bulldogs offense that ranked fifth nationally in passing yards per game a season ago. In his last three games of 2020, Kelly averaged 10.7 targets per game and turned that into averages of 5.3 receptions for 75.3 yards. While he turned in only one touchdown over six games, Kelly was just a redshirt freshman and has the size at 6-foot-1 to find pay dirt more often in 2021. Kelly has the tools to do just that Saturday at a reduced cost from his star teammate and has plenty of upside in his own right.
Samori Toure, Nebraska ($7,000) at Illinois
Toure is expected to see a lot of time in the slot for Nebraska, a spot that saw Wan'Dale Robinson average 8.5 targets per game a season ago. Toure seems to have the athleticism to take advantage of the middle of the field for Nebraska, though he could also be moved around on occasion considering he has the speed and size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) to handle an outside role if necessary. The Fighting Illini allowed 8.9 yars per attempt, and 2.3 passing touchdowns per game a season ago, both representing slate-high marks. With Adrian Martinez set under center again, it's reasonable to foresee plenty of traffic heading the way of Toure, whose size could pay off a bit more in the red zone than Robinson's 5-foot-11 stature that led to only one receiving touchdown last year.
Juan Rodriguez, Fresno State ($6,600) vs. UConn
Although I don't have quarterback Jake Haener in my plays up top, I certainly wouldn't blame you for pairing him with any of Cropper, Kelly or Rodriguez, if not multiple. It's certainly an enticing matchup and Rodriguez could fly under the radar a bit after missing all but the opener last year due to injury. He made a solid showing in his lone effort, however, racking up three catches for 24 yards and a touchdown on four targets prior to leaving the game late with what turned out to be a season-ending injury. He's back in the fold and set to start at tight end and could be a candidate to provide some value at a lower salary than some of his counterparts in the Fresno State offense.