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December 21, 2014

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College football by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of week 7

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Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

Seventeen state of the art monitors illuminate one wall of the new William Hill Race & Sports Book inside the Plaza Hotel, with dozens more mounted in seated stations that include individual reading lights as well, Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

The winning ticket from William Hill's college pick'em contest.

Last week was a good week; didn’t even have to trash my parlay.

It was the type of college football week that bettors dream about, where almost everything breaks right. I went a perfect 7-0 in the William Hill college pick’em contest to claim a share of the $5,000 weekly prize for the best record.

The picks in the college football by the odds blog went 7-3, with only the worst beat of the year — more on that below — preventing an even stronger showing.

Now comes battling the Ice Cube-cold tides of regression. Hitting 70 percent is unsustainable, even for the best sports bettors in the world.

It feels additionally daunting on what stacks up as a difficult college card this weekend. Nonetheless, I trudged ahead with the usual format of selecting 10 of the week’s most significant games to analyze from a betting perspective and prognosticate.

Click through below for this week’s college rundown and find the NFL picks column here.

    • Georgia's Keith Marshall, right, sits on a training table during an NCAA college football game against Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., Oct. 5, 2013.

      Missouri plus-7.5 at Georgia, 9 a.m., ESPN

      Can neither confirm nor refute rumors that coach Mark Richt roamed campus in Athens, Ga., this week soliciting walk-on volunteers to suit up for the Bulldogs.

      The hospital ward’s worth of injuries suffered by Georgia may not have panicked Richt to that extent, but gamblers in Las Vegas have enough apprehension to share. They’ve shaved an entire field goal off of the opening line of minus-10.5 in part because of the state of Georgia’s roster.

      Starting the year with two of the nation’s best running backs, both Todd Gurley (ankle) and Keith Marshall (ACL) are now out. Perceived top receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley won’t play for the rest of the year either, while Michael Bennett deals with his own knee ailment.

      Missouri can commiserate. The Tigers slogged through a disappointing 5-7 straight-up, 5-6 against-the-spread SEC debut a year ago because of an injury list more populated than the theaters in Branson, Mo.

      Quarterback James Franklin is back now and Missouri is clicking at 5-0 straight up, 4-0-1 against the spread. The Tigers exacted revenge for one of their most embarrassing losses a season ago last week by taming Vanderbilt 51-28 as 2.5-point favorites.

      Georgia, 4-1 but with only one cover, provided a black eye last year, storming into Columbia, Mo., and winning 41-20 in Missouri’s SEC opener.

      Pick: Georgia minus-7.5 Full disclosure, I grew up a Georgia fan and attended Missouri’s archrival college, Kansas. So it would be hard to side with black and gold in what amounts to a coin flip. But there might be some value on the Dawgs anyway with the number driven down and their level of play miles ahead of anything the Tigers have seen this season.

    • Texas head coach Mack Brown reacts during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Ames, Iowa.

      Oklahoma minus-14 vs. Texas in Dallas, 9 a.m., ABC

      2008 Red River Rivalry

      The Red River has run orange with the blood of the Longhorns in this rivalry game over the past few years.

      Oklahoma has won three straight and not allowed Texas to cover since 2008, when Colt McCoy and crew bested Sam Bradford and friends 45-35 as a touchdown underdog.

      Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops holds a 9-5 straight up, 8-5-1 against the spread lead over Texas coach Mack Brown leading up to their 15th, and likely final, showdown.

      The fluctuations of the betting market alone can illustrate why Brown and his porous defense, which is allowing 5.9 yards per play, are under fire. At the beginning of the season, Texas went off as 2.5-point favorite in this game at the Golden Nugget.

      Needless to say, gamblers’ high expectations for the Longhorns haven’t been met as they’ve gone 3-2 straight up, 2-3 against the spread while watching their northern neighbors float to 5-0 with three covers.

      Pick: Texas plus-14 Someone has to do it. With sports books printing four out of every five tickets on the Sooners, this line may have gotten a smidge too high.

    • South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) drinks from a water bottle on the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 in Columbia, S.C.

      South Carolina minus-6 at Arkansas, 9:20 a.m., ESPN3

      Steve Spurrier explains why Jadeveon Clowney didn't play

      The Jadeveon Clowney circus is, perhaps unintentionally, using one the oldest and most basic performance tricks — misdirection.

      The trapeze of analyzing the absence of Clowney, the defensive end presumed to be the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft, in last week game is concealing the true story of the Gamecocks’ season: that they’ve been massively disappointing.

      South Carolina’s 4-1 start likewise makes the ominous 1-4 against-the-spread record disappear to fans and backers. But the truth is it could have dropped either of its past two games, against UCF and Kentucky in which South Carolina was a combined 28.5-point favorite, had a play or two gone differently.

      Despite a similar 2-4 against the spread, Arkansas has shown tangible signs of progress under first-year coach Bret Bielema. OK, so the Razorbacks didn’t put up much of a fight as a 12.5-point favorite at Florida last week in a 30-10 loss.

      But they went stunt-for-stunt with Johnny Manziel in their last home game, covering the 13-point spread but losing 45-33 in a breakout game of sorts from sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen.

      To further show these two teams are closer than their perceptions, look at Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings that have South Carolina ranked No. 42 and Arkansas No. 44.

      Pick: Arkansas plus-6 Tipped my hand on this one. The Razorbacks are the most attractive home underdog on Saturday’s card.

    • Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy (3) looks for a receiver as he scrambles away from Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake, right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013.

      Florida plus-7 at LSU, 12:30, CBS

      LSU and Florida fans must collectively groan every year when this game comes up on the schedule.

      While the SEC West’s Tigers and SEC East’s Gators rotate all their other inter-divisional opponents, they play each other every year as designated rivals. With both annually in title contention, they present significant challenges and oftentimes hold the power to ruin the other’s season.

      That’s the case this season with both teams sporting one loss straight up — LSU is 3-2-1 against the spread and Florida is 2-3 — and being one loss away from completely falling out of national championship contention.

      For the first time in recent memory, Florida has a decisive edge on defense. The Gators are allowing the second-fewest yards per play in the nation at 3.8.

      LSU is far more adept on offense behind fledgling quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who’s flown up NFL Draft boards with two straight 300-yard passing games on the road in the SEC.

      Florida had covered seven in a row at Tiger Stadium before LSU embarrassed coach Will Muschamp in his first year at the helm with a 41-11 beat-down as a 14-point favorite. Even though Muschamp got one back in the series last year with a 14-6 victory as a 2-point underdog at home last year, he’s reminded his team of the humbling frequently throughout the week.

      Pick: Florida plus-7 Nice to know Muschamp will have his team motivated and focus, but the offense has also improved under new quarterback Tyler Murphy for some extra confidence.

    • Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (25) breaks away from Purdue's Antoine Lewis for a touchdown run during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Madison, Wis.

      Northwestern plus-10 at Wisconsin, 12:30, ABC

      Ohio State's cover at Northwestern

      Instead of the traditional pregame festivities at Camp Randall, these two teams should just meet at the 50-yard line and hold a group-therapy session over their near misses against Ohio State.

      Bettors deserve an invite as well because anyone who wagered on these team’s last games was subjected to immense emotional swings. A week after Wisconsin rallied for a backdoor push as a touchdown-underdog against Ohio State, Northwestern issued a bad beat for the ages.

      Covering the entire game, Northwestern ran a hook-and-ladder in the final play where the ladder toppled and crushed anyone with tickets on plus-7. Ohio State recovered a fumble in the end zone to turn a 34-30 win into a 40-30 win.

      Wisconsin got a week to let its wounds heal, but Northwestern must make a quick turnaround after a loss and third straight non-cover in what was one of the biggest games in school history. The Badgers are 4-0-1 against the spread on the season, making coach Gary Andersen’s overall mark 15-1-2 over the past two seasons.

      Pick: Wisconsin minus-10 Nice spot for Wisconsin, which will unleash running backs Melvin Gordon and James White on a relatively weak Northwestern rushing defense.

    • In this Oct. 5, 2013, file photo, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk (25) scores past West Virginia safety Karl Joseph (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Waco, Texas. Seastrunk boldly stated last year that he would win the 2013 Heisman Trophy, or come very close. Through four games, the former Oregon transfer is the nation's second-leading rusher in the 15th-ranked Bears' high-scoring offense.

      Baylor minus-17.5 at Kansas State, 12:30 p.m., Fox

      Speaking of Northwestern, the Wildcats ceded their unofficial title of Bettors’ Champions earlier this year to another private university 1,000 miles southwest.

      Baylor takes its nation-high 10-game winning streak against the spread — Northwestern had nine in a row earlier this year — on the road for the first time this season to a place where it looks vulnerable. The Bears have never won in Manhattan, Kan., going 0-4 all-time and losing by an average of 27 points per game with just one cover.

      None of those teams had the likes of quarterback Bryce Petty and running back Lache Seastrunk running the offense, however, to the likes of more than 700 yards per game. Petty and Seastrunk are executing coach Art Briles’ schemes even better than Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright two years ago.

      They’re both in the middle of the pack to win the Heisman Trophy at 25-to-1 at offshore sports books (Las Vegas casinos can’t take bets on such awards).

      Kansas State hasn’t been this big of a home underdog since 2008, when coach Ron Prince and quarterback Josh Freeman failed to get it to bowl eligibility. The Wildcats held as a 5-point favorite in this spot all summer at the Golden Nugget, but the Bears' run has moved the line to a staggering degree.

      Pick: Kansas State plus-17.5 Baylor is legitimate in every sense, but these are a few too many points to ask in its first trip of the season.

    • Washington quarterback Keith Price passes in the rain during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Seattle.

      Oregon minus-13.5 at Washington, 1 p.m., Fox Sports 1

      From one absurdly efficient offense to the next, Oregon trails only Baylor in several statistical categories, including its average of 630 yards per game.

      While sports books continue to hang the line for a potential national championship game between Oregon and Alabama — the Crimson Tide are 3.5-point favorites — it’s the Ducks and Bears that would make for the most exciting matchup. The teams would have an over/under total that would approach, if not surpass, triple digits.

      The pace of an offense like Oregon’s does a disservice to the defense, which is far better than the numbers it puts up through traditional statistics. Washington quarterback Keith Price can attest.

      Price has put together a steady career but, in three previous matchups with the Ducks, he’s averaged less than 140 yards per game with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He deserves his share of the blame for Oregon’s nine straight covers and wins in the series.

      Statistically, Washington is in better shape to hang with Oregon this year. It’s one of three teams in the nation to hold every opponent to a season low in yardage. The Huskies rank No. 11 in Football Outsiders’ FEI, not far behind the Ducks’ No. 6.

      Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is the runaway favorite in Heisman odds offshore at less than 2-to-1.

      Pick: Oregon minus-13.5 Washington is coming off a deflating loss, while Oregon has waited for this game after rolling past and covering against five inferior foes.

    • Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (98) scrambles out of the pocket, defended by Minnesota linebacker James Manuel (9), in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan won 42-13.

      Michigan minus-2.5 at Penn State, 2 p.m., ESPN

      Michigan proves the betting market isn’t above subscribing to the old “winning solves everything” adage.

      The Wolverines and Nittany Lions have played at a nearly identical level for the last month, both going 1-2 against the spread, yet the former is the favorite on the road against the latter. An explanation? Michigan eked out all three games on the scoreboard while Penn State dropped two.

      But let’s not forget two of those wins were of the skin-of-their-teeth variety against lowly Connecticut and Akron. If one break goes the other way in either of those games, this number swings the other way.

      It’s already going in that direction offshore, where Penn State is as short as 1-point underdog. The Nittany Lions didn’t inspire much confidence a week ago in a 44-24 loss at Indiana as 2-point favorites, but the score got blown out of proportion as they only trailed 21-17 to start the fourth quarter.

      Michigan knows about that. The Wolverines were on their way to retaining the Little Brown Jug last week but not filling it with cash as they were ahead 28-13 late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota as 17-point favorites.

      Late heroics, including a 72-yard pick-six with a minute to go, were the only thing that gave them their 42-13 margin.

      Pick: Penn State plus-2.5 Not a lot of confidence because Michigan’s potential ceiling is higher, but Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenburg is improving every game. That’s more than can be said about Michigan’s Devin Gardner.

    • Stanford's Ty Montgomery catches a punt against Washington State in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Seattle.

      Stanford minus-8.5 at Utah, 3 p.m., Pac-12 Network

      Including this week’s contest and next week’s meeting against UCLA, the five-week schedule Stanford is in the middle of shows how tough the Pac-12 has become.

      One of the top five teams in the nation by any poll or measure — including oddsmakers’ power ratings — the Cardinal have never been favored by double digits in the stretch. The numbers bare out the notion of the Pac-12 creeping up on the SEC in the conference hierarchy not being far-fetched.

      In Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings, the SEC leads with six teams ranked in the top 25. But the Pac-12 is right behind with five, and a sixth comes in at No. 26.

      Stanford is a surprising No. 1, as unforeseen as Utah ranking 16th. After two straight losing seasons to start their time in the Pac-12, the Utes were determined to make amends this year.

      They’ve come close early but dropped a 51-48 loss to Oregon State in overtime as 3.5-point favorites and a 34-27 setback against UCLA getting five. They almost beat the Bruins despite sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson tossing six interceptions.

      While on the topic of rusty quarterback play, Kevin Hogan threw for only 100 yards on 12-for-20 passing in Stanford’s 31-28 win over Washington last week. The Cardinal were out-gained by more than 200 yards, winning solely because of kick returns from Ty Montgomery, including one for a touchdown to open the game.

      Pick: Utah plus-8.5 Not meaning to make it a tradition to pick against Stanford every week in this space, but the opportunity keeps presenting itself.

    • Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon (4) runs for yardage as Mississippi defensive back Trae Elston (7) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.

      Alabama minus-27.5 at Kentucky, 4 p.m., ESPN

      Nick Saban must roll his eyes at all the hullabaloo extended the Denver Broncos’ way for laying 27.5 points in an NFL game for the first time in history.

      Saban, after all, does it virtually every other week. As sports book directors would glowingly recount, though, he’s recently had a problem succeeding in the role.

      Alabama is just 1-6 against the spread in games where its favored by 27.5 points or more in the past two seasons, bringing a net win for the casinos. But the one cover is what’s important, as it came against Auburn last season.

      Saban holds less back when facing SEC opponents as opposed to looking disinterested once building big leads against nonconference ones. In seven instances where Alabama gave at least 20 points in conference games under Saban, it’s gone 5-2 against the spread.

      Expect quarterback A.J. McCarron, 18th nationally in passing efficiency, and T.J. Yeldon, 39th in rushing with 445 yards, to stay in longer for a larger workload than against other teams they’ve outgunned in the past.

      Aside from the 49-42 shootout victory with Texas A&M, Alabama’s defense is giving up less than four points per game.

      Pick: Alabama minus-27.5 The weekly “take a deep breath and know you’re getting the best of it” game features a massive favorite instead of big underdog for the first time. Look for Alabama to cruise on the road.

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

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