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November 20, 2014

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College football by the Vegas odds: Sports book preview of the Big Ten

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook hands the ball off to running back Jeremy Langford against Illinois during the first quarter of a game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., Oct. 26, 2013.

Note: Talking Points will preview a college football conference every week leading up to the Aug. 28 kickoff of the season. Check out part one here and part two here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for already-released Big Ten game lines.

Odds to win the Big Ten

  • Ohio State: 5-to-4
  • Michigan State: 3-to-1
  • Wisconsin: 3-to-1
  • Iowa: 9-to-1
  • Michigan: 12-to-1
  • Northwestern 12-to-1
  • Nebraska: 12-to-1
  • Maryland: 40-to-1
  • Indiana: 60-to-1
  • Minnesota: 60-to-1
  • Illinois: 100-to-1
  • Rutgers: 500-to-1
  • Purdue: 500-to-1
  • Penn State: Ineligible
  • Numbers from the Westgate Superbook

Big Ten win totals

  • Ohio State: 10.5 (over minus-110, under plus-110)
  • Wisconsin: 9.5 (over minus-140, under plus-120)
  • Michigan State: 9.5 (over plus-135, under minus-155)
  • Iowa: 8 (over minus-110, under minus-110)
  • Nebraska: 8 (over plus-140, under minus-160)
  • Northwestern: 7.5 (over minus-150, under plus-130)
  • Michigan: 7.5 (over minus-110, under minus-110)
  • Numbers from Westgate Superbook

If major college football conferences insist on further numerical illiteracy, they could at least get creative.

The Big Ten keeps its name but increases to the Big 14 with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers this season, even though the Big Three is the best way to describe the conference for football purposes. New students will arrive on campuses spread throughout the league’s Midwestern territory this fall who can’t remember a time when either Ohio State, Wisconsin or Michigan State didn’t reign over the Big Ten.

It’s been a decade since one of those three failed to win the conference championship. Michigan State and Wisconsin have split the past four titles, while Ohio State won in each of the five previous years.

That makes the top of the Big Ten by far the least parity-driven major conference, which the Las Vegas odds can also attest. The Spartans, Badgers and Buckeyes have covered in 57 percent of their conference games over the past 10 years, an insanely high and profitable figure given the large sample size.

The last time the Big Three didn’t combine to post a winning record against the spread in conference play was 2002, when Ohio State ironically won the Big Ten’s only national championship of the BCS era.

And there’s no end in sight to the dominance. Oddsmakers place Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin a few rungs above the rest of the Big Ten going into the 2014 season.

They’re the only three teams listed at less than 100-to-1 odds to win the national championship at the Westgate Superbook with Ohio State at 12-to-1, Michigan State at 25-to-1 and Wisconsin at 35-to-1.

The chances of one of the three teams winning their 10th straight Big Ten crown, after adjusting for the house’s hold in the future book, is a nudge better than 70 percent.

There’s a debate over which team this year’s discussion should start with, though the odds say it’s unequivocally the Buckeyes. Ohio State is tied for the sixth-lowest odds to win the national championship, which makes the Big Ten the only major conference without a team in the top five on the futures betting board.

The Big Ten has just seven teams listed with national championship odds total, tied with the Big 12 for the lowest. And the Big 12 has four fewer teams.

The relative weakness of the conference is perceived as Ohio State’s gain. The only game the Buckeyes look remotely at risk as coming in as the underdog is when they travel to face the Spartans on Nov. 8.

Golden Nugget opened Michigan State as a 1-point favorite, but money rushed in on Ohio State. By the time the Superbook got around to releasing its numbers, it posted Ohio State as a 1.5-point road favorite.

Depending on how the early part of the season goes, the game could be the first time in two years that the Buckeyes take points.

Click to enlarge photo

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

Urban Meyer is established as transcendent at covering point spreads — he’s 90-55-3 for his career — and he’s 2-for-2 straight up when entering as an underdog at Ohio State. The two instances were, not surprisingly, against Michigan State and Wisconsin in 2012 when Ohio State was plus-2.

Ohio State and Michigan State find themselves in symmetrical situations this season. Both teams return 12 starters, but seven of them are on the side that lagged behind in 2013.

The Buckeyes’ offense ranked No. 1 nationally in Football Outsiders’ success rate and No. 2 in the site’s F/+ ratings last season, but lost a solid chunk of contributors. They’re still expected to regularly march down the field behind quarterback Braxton Miller, who’s the third choice to win the Heisman Trophy at 15-to-2 at offshore sports books.

Reaching their highest aspirations will hinge on how a defense that gets back six of its front seven responds after allowing more than 30 points in four of its final five games last season.

The Spartans’ defense landed No. 1 nationally in success rate and No. 2 in F/+, but bid farewell to many of its best players. The pass defense should remain tough with high NFL Draft prospects at both cornerback and safety in Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond, respectively.

Beating out Ohio State in the East Division will depend on the consistency of an offense, led by quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford, that performed dreadfully in a third of last season’s contests.

There’s a strong contingent that believes neither Ohio State nor Michigan State is the team to beat in the Big Ten. The feeling goes that Wisconsin, despite bringing back a conference-low 10 starters, has an easier path to the Big Ten title game in the West Division.

The story checks out at the sports books. In its four toughest Big Ten games — the only ones lined so far — the Badgers are an average 8.5-point favorite as opposed to minus-6 for the Buckeyes and minus-5.5 for the Spartans.

Click to enlarge photo

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (25), rushes against Illinois' Mason Monheim (43), and Mike Svetina (34), during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. Wisconsin won 56-32.

Wisconsin opens the season as a 7-point underdog against LSU in Houston, but it’s conceivable the Badgers will be at least a touchdown favorite in all of their other regular season games.

Coach Gary Andersen is regarded as a defensive whiz, and he’ll need to prove it with just three returning starters on that side, though promising new talent includes highly recruited and wonderfully named defensive end Jake Keefer.

On offense, junior Melvin Gordon is likely the best running back in the Big Ten, and sophomore Corey Clement isn’t far behind.

While every preseason magazine and football pundit seems to have penciled Wisconsin in as the West Division champion, the odds aren’t as conclusive. The Badgers are just plus-120 (risking $1 to win $1.20) to win the West offshore with three predators stalking.

Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern all have their own reasons for optimism.

The Hawkeyes have the Big Ten’s easiest schedule — Football Outsiders ranks the slate 95th in the nation — avoiding Ohio State and Michigan State out of the East while getting Wisconsin at home. Wisconsin gives six points in the game, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a strong history as an underdog.

In 16 seasons, he’s gone 42-32-2 against the spread when taking points. Overall, Ferentz is a profitable 98-80 against the spread.

He’s got one of his best offenses coming back this year with quarterback Jake Rudock, running back Mark Weisman and wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley forming a formidable trio.

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Unidentified Northwestern football players walk between their locker room and McGaw Hall, where voting is taking place on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill.

Northwestern is one of the only teams that can claim more. The Wildcats are one of the most experienced teams in the nation with 17 returning starters, tied with Indiana and Maryland for the Big Ten high, including running backs Venric Mark and Treyvon Green.

Northwestern plummeted to a conference-worst 3-9 against-the-spread record last year after recording a national-best 11-1-1 the previous season. But everything went wrong in 2014, from countless injuries to a 1-4 record in games decided by less than a touchdown.

Nebraska consistently stays in contention, going either 10-4 or 9-4 straight up in each of coach Bo Pelini’s six seasons at the helm and 7-7 or 7-6 against the spread in four of the campaigns. The Cornhuskers are the only non-Big Three team to reach the nascent Big Ten Championship Game.

They were 3-point favorites against Wisconsin in the showdown two years ago and promptly lost 70-31.

At 12-to-1, odds give both Nebraska and Northwestern less than a 6 percent chance to win the Big 10. That puts them both right with Michigan, tied at fifth in the league.

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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.

The Wolverines are in the unenviable position of looking up to both of their archrivals in the Buckeyes and Spartans. Coach Brady Hoke has gone a respectable 26-13 straight up, 20-17-2 against the spread in three seasons, but his performances against Michigan State and Ohio State have left some Michigan fans empty.

Michigan is just 2-4 straight up and 1-5 against the spread versus its two rivals under Hoke. The Wolverines must travel to play both this season, installed as a 7.5-point underdog at Michigan State and an 8-point underdog at Ohio State.

With 42 championships, Michigan has the most wins of any school in conference history. The nine seasons that have passed without a title have brought a program-long drought and dropped Michigan from the ranks of the elite.

The Big Ten has turned into the Big Three.

Golden Nugget Games of the Year lines

Aug. 30: Wisconsin plus-7 vs. LSU in Houston

Aug. 30: Ohio State minus-14 vs. Navy in Baltimore

Aug. 30: Penn State minus-2.5 vs. Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland

Aug. 30: Northwestern minus-9.5 vs. California

Sept. 6: Ohio State minus-18 vs. Virginia Tech

Sept. 6: Michigan State plus-13 at Oregon

Sept. 6: Michigan plus-3 at Notre Dame

Sept. 13: Iowa minus-9.5 vs. Iowa State

Sept. 13: Nebraska minus-4 at Fresno State

Sept. 20: Nebraska minus-3 vs. Miami

Sept. 27: Ohio State minus-21 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 27: Minnesota plus-12 at Michigan

Oct. 4: Nebraska plus-8 at Michigan State

Oct. 4: Wisconsin minus-7 at Northwestern

Oct. 11: Penn State plus-7 at Michigan

Oct. 18: Nebraska minus-2.5 at Northwestern

Oct. 25: Ohio State minus-9 at Penn State

Oct. 25: Michigan plus-7.5 at Michigan State

Nov. 8: Ohio State plus-1 at Michigan State

Nov. 8: Michigan minus-3 at Northwestern

Nov. 8: Iowa pick ’em at Minnesota

Nov. 15: Nebraska plus-7 at Wisconsin

Nov. 20: Northwestern plus-8 at Notre Dame

Nov. 22: Wisconsin minus-6 at Iowa

Nov. 28: Nebraska plus-1 at Iowa

Nov. 29: Michigan plus-8 at Ohio State

Nov. 29: Minnesota plus-13 at Wisconsin

Nov. 29: Illinois plus-9.5 at Northwestern

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

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