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April 18, 2014

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College football by the odds: Opening weekend in Vegas

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks around the stadium before their NCAA college football fan day on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.

The first weekend of college football works as an appetizer of sorts for gamblers in Las Vegas.

A couple games with immediate national championship implications that draw a large betting handle are sandwiched amid a platter of nonconference affairs and a sampling of lesser rivalries.

It’s enough to cure football starvation while leaving everyone hungry for more.

Prepare for the first course of college football betting with the information below. We’ll break down the two biggest games, offer quick trends or pointers on some others and provide picks at the bottom of the page.

No. 8 Michigan +14 vs. No. 2 Alabama; over/under: 47

5 p.m. Saturday, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, ABC

The love for the Crimson Tide stretches far and wide.

It flows from the Deep South, passes the Mississippi, flies over the Rockies and lands square at the betting window in Las Vegas sports books. How else to explain the inflated spread in the first weekend’s premier game?

Action on Alabama has pushed the line as many as three points in its favor, mostly in the last month. The Golden Nugget opened Alabama as a 12-point favorite this summer only to see money come in on Michigan to decrease the line to 10.

The market indicates few have muttered “Go Blue” in Las Vegas ever since. The trend could hint that sharp money backed Michigan early, but the public’s fondness for Alabama has won out.

There are plenty of explainable reasons. Linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are back for a squad that — amazingly — ranked first in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense during last year’s national championship season.

Nick Saban has gone 10-6 against the spread in nonconference games at Alabama. Take away his first year, when he had a weaker team without his own recruits, and he’s gone 10-3 and covered against all marquee opponents — Penn State twice, Virginia Tech and Clemson.

If anyone can test the Crimson Tide on defense, however, it might be dynamic Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The Wolverines went 7-4-1 against the spread in the first year since Rich Rodriguez’s departure last year.

Are they worth a shot at +500 (risking $1 to win $5) on the money line? Beating Alabama sounds far-fetched. Losing a close game where the Wolverines manage to cover sounds more likely.

No. 14 Clemson -3 vs. Auburn; over/under: 55

4 p.m. Saturday, Georgia Dome in Atlanta, ESPN

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Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (10) on the sidelines during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against West Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Miami .

Auburn starts the season doing what Auburn does best — getting overshadowed by big brother and in-state rival Alabama.

Tigers vs. Tigers will get an hour of every football fanatics’ full attention until they switch to Alabama vs. Michigan. A tip: Go ahead and make use of that picture-in-picture because this could easily turn out as the better game.

Bettors, for one, are much more split on the outcome. Some books have Clemson as a 3.5-point favorite while others posted 3, but the number has barely moved anywhere.

This is the third straight year the schools have clashed, and Clemson covered in the first two. The Tigers from South Carolina actually led the Tigers from Alabama 17-0 before Cam Newton willed his eventual national-champion teammates to a victory in overtime in 2010.

Auburn has been profitable under third-year coach Gene Chizik, but his results as an underdog are inconclusive. Chizik has gone 8-7 when getting points.

Clemson went 6-3 against the spread as favorites last year. Defensive lapses caused Clemson to lose four of its final six last year — five losses against the Vegas number — after winning and covering in six straight to start the season.

Respected defensive coordinator Brent Venables arrives this year to assist in shoring up the problems. Clemson’s star receiver Sammy Watkins is out due to suspension, but the defending ACC champions have 13 other starters back.

Quick slants

• Saturday’s first game should test the will of bettors who waited until the last second to gamble. It starts at 6 in the morning local time, as Notre Dame and Navy battle in Dublin, Ireland. Those constantly labeling Notre Dame as overvalued could be right. The Fighting Irish have posted a losing record against the spread in three of the last five years and overall in the last decade. They’re 3-7 against the spread in openers the past 10 years, but some factors are working in their favor as 16-point favorites over the Midshipmen. Notre Dame has enjoyed more time than usual to prepare for Navy’s wishbone and should have the Irish crowd behind them.

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Former Florida coach Urban Meyer appears at a news conference earlier this month to officially accept the same position at Ohio State.

• The return of the best coach to wager on in recent memory occurs Saturday in Ohio. Urban Meyer leads 24.5-point favorites Ohio State into a game against Miami (Ohio). Large numbers fail to scare Meyer, as he’s an astounding 71-43-1 against the spread as a coach including 18-2-1 in non-conference contests at home.

• Many bettors swear by taking the underdog in rivalry games. Marshall has proven that group correct in recent years as it has lost five straight to West Virginia, but covered in four of them and three straight. The Thundering Herd are 25-point underdogs in Morgantown, W.V. Saturday, up from the opener of 22 because of the excitement surrounding the Mountaineers as dark horse national title contenders.

• On the flip side, Colorado has covered the spread as a favorite against Colorado State in four of the past five years. The Buffaloes have never failed to beat the number when the annual showdown is scheduled for neutral-site Denver, where Saturday’s proceedings take place at 1 p.m. on FX. Colorado is a 6.5-point favorite over Colorado State this year.

• Might as well touch on all the rivalries. The last one goes down Sunday as Kentucky visits Louisville to play for the Governor’s Cup. The Wildcats are 13-point underdogs, but this series usually plays out much closer. These teams are 5-5 against the spread in the last 10 years of the rivalry. A touchdown or less has decided four of the five last meetings. In a freak occurrence, Kentucky has gone 6-6 against the spread in each of the last five years.

• A few conference games, rare for this early in the season, are thrown into the mix. In perhaps the most competitive one, Miami visits Boston College as 2.5-point favorites. The Hurricanes return only 10 starters as opposed to the Eagles’ 17. Boston College has won and covered in two straight against Miami after a 15-game losing streak in the series.

• Why is anyone suggesting Duke coach David Cutcliffe should lose his job? Yes, he’s won only six conference games in four years. But that doubles the Blue Devils total of three wins from the eight years before he arrived. Cutcliffe has also gone 22-16-5 against the spread, but may have a tough assignment Saturday against rising Florida International as a 2.5-point favorite. FIU coach Mario Cristobal is into symmetry, as he’s 31-31 in six years at the helm.

• Biggest favorite of the week? That honor goes to No. 3 LSU, which is installed as a 43-point favorite over North Texas. Some bettors think that sounds like too much when recalling LSU’s struggles to get the ball past the 50-yard line in its last game, the infamous 21-0 national championship game loss to Alabama. But the Tigers offense could very well improve this year with Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger under center and their top four rushers, including Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, back.

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In this Nov. 26, 2011 file photo, Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley celebrates the Trojans' 50-0 win over UCLA in an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles.

• No. 1 Southern California is close to knocking LSU off of its pedestal as the biggest favorite. The Trojans are 42-point favorites against Hawaii after opening at 38. The betting build up surrounding quarterback Matt Barkley’s senior year is unmatched, even by Alabama. Oddsmakers have printed more tickets on USC to win the national championship than any other team in years, so it’s no surprise a tidal wave of support has come in on the Trojans to suffocate the Warriors.

• Ever seen a defending conference champion as a 37-point underdog? Probably at some point, but there’s another one Saturday in Sun Belt champions Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have the unenviable task of traveling to the Pacific Northwest for a meeting with the Oregon Ducks, a team that’s out to notch its 10th straight winning season against the spread.

• Virginia Tech has possibly the lowest number of offensive starters coming back in the nation with only three. One of them, however, is junior quarterback Logan Thomas. Georgia Tech returns most key contributors on its offense after a disastrous season against the spread, 4-7-1, but decent overall at 8-5. The two Techies battle in Monday’s lone game with host Virginia Tech as 7.5-point favorites.

Six pack of picks: Kentucky +13, Clemson -3, Northwestern vs. Syracuse over 53.5, Boston College +2.5, Florida International +2.5, Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech under 48.5

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

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