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College football by the odds: Betting preview of the Big Ten

Sugar Bowl

Bill Haber / AP

Ohio State players celebrate a touchdown by running back Ezekiel Elliott in the second half of the Sugar Bowl against Alabama on Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, in New Orleans.

Note: Talking Points will run betting previews of all the major conferences leading up to college football’s kickoff. This is part four of the series. Check out the first three parts here.

History might do the 2014 college football season an injustice.

The masses are unlikely to remember long-term just how improbable it was to witness Ohio State win the inaugural college football playoff. Even if third-string quarterback Cardale Jones leading the Buckeyes to the trophy turns into a fable too sweeping to ignore, the scope of the achievement will lose something in the collective memory.

The champions will probably go down as a team stocked with NFL talent at one of the sport’s most storied programs under a legendary coach.

In reality, it wasn’t like that. At this time last year, almost everyone was busy partaking in an Ezekiel Elliot-like sprint away from the Buckeyes.

It was perceived as a crushing blow when appointed four-year starting quarterback and Heisman favorite Braxton Miller went down with an injury in the preseason. The betting market is as guilty as any other institution in prematurely counting out the Buckeyes.

Ohio State climbed as high as 50-to-1 to win the national championship at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook in response to Miller’s injury two weeks before the season. The Buckeyes were tied for the 15th lowest odds on the board.

To put that into perspective, Ohio State was in the same position that Ole Miss, Arkansas and Stanford occupy going into this season.

Ohio State emerged as the longest shot champion in 14 years, since Oklahoma burst out of mediocrity in coach Bob Stoops’ second season to win the BCS National Championship in 2000.

Everything’s changed this year, where Ohio State must seek to pair the title under polar opposite circumstances. It’s the most ballyhooed team entering a season in a decade.

Gamblers have pushed Ohio State’s odds to repeat as champions down to plus-250 (risking $1 to win $2.50). That’s lower than both Florida State last year coming off an undefeated season and Alabama in 2013 attempting a three-peat, which were both 3-to-1.

The Buckeyes start the year as expected to win the championship as they did going into last year’s final game, where they opened as a plus-235 underdog to Oregon.

As a minus-500 (risking $5 to win $1) favorite to win the Big Ten, the odds give no other team better than an 8 percent chance to win the conference title. It’s the first time that’s happened in at least a half-decade in a major conference.

The Golden Nugget only opened lines on four Ohio State contests as part of its annual game of the year package, partly because the team’s spreads project as so stratospheric. Coach Urban Meyer usually covers them, however, with the best against the spread record among veteran college football coaches at 100-60-3.

In three years at Ohio State, Meyer has come in as an underdog six times and won all of them outright. That includes the last three games of the 2014 season — versus Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon — to capture the national championship.

The moneylines on those games implied approximately a 5 percent chance Ohio State would win them all. The depths from which the Buckeyes rose to win last year’s title are gone, but should never be forgotten.

Check below for a team-by-team preview of the Big Ten including betting odds, analysis and picks at the bottom of the page. Last year, Talking Points went 102-80-2 against the spread in college football picking the 10 biggest games each week and every bowl game. Future prices come from the Superbook, while CG Technology provides win totals.

Ohio State

Odds to win the Big Ten: minus-500

Win total: 11.5 (over minus-110, under minus-120)

Week 1 line: Ohio State minus-11 at Virginia Tech

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 17 Ohio State minus-19 vs. Penn State; Nov. 21 Ohio State minus-12.5 vs. Michigan State; Nov. 28 Ohio State minus-12 at Michigan

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Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) runs for a first down before being tackled by Penn State safeties Adrian Amos (4) and Marcus Allen (2) during the first quarter an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Overview: There’s not much else to say about Ohio State, so let’s allow the odds to speak. An offshore prop asking whether the Buckeyes will make the playoffs lists “yes” at minus-350 and “no” at plus-250, implying a 75 percent chance they’ll reach the final four. The probability boosts 10 more percent that they’ll at least compete in a New Year’s Six bowl with the line at minus-690 for “yes” and plus-430 for “no.” Bettors can get a plus-500 payout that Ohio State becomes the first team ever to finish 15-0 and win the national championship, denoting a 15 percent chance. The Buckeyes will either have to fall off drastically or witness Michigan State or Michigan — their final two opponents — rise throughout the year to not lay at least double digits on the spread in every regular season game.

The height of the numbers is staggering, but also difficult to refute. The defending national champions return 15 starters including the co-favorite to win the Heisman in junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, who’s offered at 5-to-1 offshore. Three Ohio State quarterbacks are in the Heisman’s next odds group with J.T. Barrett at 9-to-1, Cardale Jones at 14-to-1 and even Braxton Miller at 33-to-1 despite his position change to H-back. Junior defensive end Joey Bosa will rake in more defensive awards than he can count as potentially the nation’s best pass rusher. It’s possible Ohio State has the conference’s two best linebackers, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee, to go with its top safety, Vonn Bell, and most impenetrable cornerback, Eli Apple. Bettors have bombed wagers on Ohio State in the futures market as much as that talent would advocate, but sharper players have taken a stance against it from a game-by-game perspective. Three of the four games posted at Golden Nugget — including the opener at Virginia Tech — have seen line moves against Ohio State, including a 4-point swing in the rivalry game at Michigan. There’s a history of oddsmakers overvaluing the defending national champions, including no team in the last five years posting a winning record against the spread coming off winning the trophy. Even Meyer was merely human in the season after his last national championship, as Florida went 7-7 against the spread in 2009. But the odds are definitive: This team projects better than any in recent memory.


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In this Sept. 28, 2013, photo, Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst calls a time out in the fourth quarter of an NCAA football game against Virginia in Pittsburgh.

Odds to win the Big Ten: 8-to-1

Win total: 9.5 (over minus-120, under minus-110)

Week 1 line: Wisconsin plus-10.5 vs. Alabama in Dallas

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 10 Wisconsin minus-1.5 at Nebraska

Overview: Five of the six top-rated teams in the Big Ten have seen money come in on their over win total. Wisconsin is the exception. A team with glaring questions among the skill positions transitioning to their third coach in four years clearly doesn’t enamor bettors. Junior running back Corey Clements must follow a daunting precedent set by Melvin Gordon, who led the nation by more than 500 rushing yards last season. He’ll need more help from senior quarterback Joel Stave, who threw 10 interceptions to only nine touchdowns last season. New coach Paul Chryst also appears as a decided dropdown from Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema, as the former Wisconsin assistant went only 19-20 straight-up and 18-21 against the spread in three years at Pittsburgh. On Wisconsin’s side is the Big Ten’s easiest schedule. Aside the season opener against Alabama, Wisconsin is unlikely to come into any other game as an underdog.

Michigan State

Odds to win the Big Ten: 8-to-1

Win total: 9.5 (over minus-170, under plus-140)

Week 1 line: Michigan State minus-19 at Western Michigan

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Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook (18) is stopped as he scrambles by Michigan's James Ross III (15) and Frank Clark (57) during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in East Lansing, Mich.

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 12 Michigan State minus-5 vs. Oregon; Oct. 17 Michigan State minus-7 at Michigan; Nov. 7 Michigan State minus-7.5 at Nebraska; Nov. 21 Michigan State plus-12.5 at Ohio State; Nov. 28 Michigan State minus-12 vs. Penn State

Overview: The Spartans are the only team in the conference other than the Buckeyes with odds of less than 100-to-1 to win the national championship. Michigan State has stayed planted at 20-to-1 since January with only six teams currently listed with a shorter price. The high ranking speaks to the consistency constructed in East Lansing, Mich., in eight years under Mark D’Antonio, who’s almost as transcendent at cashing tickets as Meyer. D’Antonio is 60-43-3 against the spread for the Spartans, including 19-8 the past two seasons. It’s no wonder money rushed in on them in four of five games posted at the Golden Nugget. Senior quarterback Connor Cook could deny the trio of Ohio State signal callers the title of the Big Ten’s best passer. The three-year starter has 45 touchdowns to 13 interceptions in his career with more than 6,000 passing yards. He’ll need help from some new skill players but gets the luxury of four of five starting offensive linemen back including All-American center Jack Allen.


Odds to win the Big 10: 15-to-1

Win total: 8 (over minus-160, under plus-130)

Week 1 line: Nebraska minus-6 vs. BYU

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 19 Nebraska pick’em at Miami; Oct. 10 Nebraska plus-1.5 vs. Wisconsin; Nov. 7 Nebraska plus-7.5 vs. Michigan State; Nov. 28 Nebraska minus-8.5 vs. Iowa

Overview: No one was surprised to see Bo Pelini dismissed despite a season that was one of his best by Las Vegas standards. Pelini went 7-5 against the spread (9-3 straight-up) in his final act as Nebraska’s coach, which evened the performance of his high-mark 2009 team. And therein lies the problem. The Cornhuskers were decent but not outstanding under Pelini. The task to restore the program to its former glory — Nebraska went 66-28 straight-up, 49-44-1 against the spread under Pelini — falls to fellow defensive-minded coach Mike Riley, who must fix a unit that finished 93rd in the nation in giving up 4.8 yards per rush attempt last season. Offense should be less of a concern with seven returning starters including quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who accounted for 3,400 total yards last season. Riley will also need to pull a few more upsets than Pelini. Although Nebraska went 11-10 against the spread when taking points in the last seven years, it was just 5-16 straight-up in those contests.


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San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh walks off the field after an NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. The 49ers won 20-17.

Odds to win the Big Ten: 15-to-1

Win total: 7.5 (over minus-170, under plus-140)

Week 1 line: Michigan plus-6 at Utah

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 12 Michigan minus-15.5 vs. Oregon State; Sept. 19 Michigan minus-33 vs. UNLV; Sept. 26 Michigan minus-5 vs. BYU; Oct. 17 Michigan plus-7 vs. Michigan State; Nov. 21 Michigan plus-3.5 at Penn State Nov. 28 Michigan plus-12 vs. Ohio State

Overview: The Wolverines are yet another Big Ten contender — though their 15-to-1 price translates to just a 5 percent chance of winning the conference — with a coach as their focal point. Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford from one of the worst teams in college football to one of the best in his first major head-coaching gig, going 29-21 straight-up and 28-22 against the spread in four years. He manufactured a similar and immediate transformation with the San Francisco 49ers with a 49-22-1 straight-up and 40-28-4 against the spread over the last four years, which included coming within minutes of winning the Super Bowl. Michigan is desperate for a change of fortune after spending the last decade as the worst team in the Big Ten to bet on with a 53-68-2 against the spread record. There are factors other than Harbuagh also pointing upwards. Behind archrival Ohio State, Michigan returns the most experience in the conference. Some of last year’s bottoming-out was also bad luck as Michigan had the fifth-worst turnover margin in the country at minus-16.

Penn State

Odds to win the Big Ten: 25-to-1

Win total: 8 (over minus-178, under plus-148)

Week 1 line: Penn State minus-7 at Temple

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 28 Penn State minus-28 vs. Army; Oct. 17 Penn State plus-19 at Ohio State; Nov. 21 Penn State minus-3.5 vs. Michigan; Nov. 28 Penn State plus-12 at Michigan State

Overview: The greatest “what if” to play with the 2014 season might involve what would have happened if Penn State held off Ohio State in a game it lost in double-overtime midway through the year. If one play had broken differently, Ohio State would never have gotten the opportunity to play for the national championship and the entire perception of Penn State would have changed. The performance was arguably Penn State’s high point of the season as it crashed in the next four games to close the regular season. The Nittany Lions followed the close call against the Buckeyes with a 2-3 straight-up, 1-4 against the spread record that featured quarterback Christian Hackenberg regressing to a two-touchdown, six-interception stretch. Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions saved face in the Pinstripe Bowl, upsetting Boston College 31-30 in overtime courtesy of four touchdown passes. Gamblers must believe they can build on that momentum, as the Nittany Lions have been the most popular over win total bet of any team in the Big Ten. Hackenberg comes back along with the bulk of the other skill players including top target DaeSean Hamilton and running back Akeel Lynch.


Odds to win the Big Ten: 25-to-1

Win total: 7.5 (over plus-105, under minus-135)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Illinois State)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 5 Iowa minus-4.5 at Iowa State; Nov. 27 Iowa plus-8.5 at Nebraska

Overview: The Hawkeyes drew some late support on both their over win total and Big Ten future odds last year when Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller went down in the preseason. Bettors must have learned their lesson after Iowa labored through yet another disappointing season, posting their fourth losing record against the spread in the last five years. It’s getting no action this season. Iowa has seen its odds to win the Big Ten rise from 20- to 25-to-1, its national championship price go from 300- to 500-to-1 and its win total shift strongly towards the under. The Hawkeyes won’t be the flashiest team with their strengths residing in the trenches. Center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh lead the offense, while ends Drew Ott and Nate Meier are the defensive standouts. As far as positive indicators, Iowa has the easiest schedule in the Big Ten and fell victim to both negative turnover variance — a minus-6 margin — and luck in close games — 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less — last season.


Odds to win the Big Ten: 25-to-1

Win total: 6 (over minus-155, under plus-125)

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Minnesota coach Jerry Kill leaves the field after losing to North Dakota State 37-24 on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Minneapolis. Kill went 3-9 in his first season with the Gophers and opens his second season at UNLV at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

Week 1 line: Minnesota plus-14 vs. TCU

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Golden Gophers are the final Big 10 team with a price listed to win the national championship as they’re a 500-to-1 shot on the futures board. That might not sound like much, but it’s an accomplishment considering where Minnesota was before coach Jerry Kill arrived in 2011. The program is coming off of consecutive winning seasons both straight-up and against the spread for the first time in more than a decade. It’s particularly held over on conference rivals with back-to-back 6-2 against the spread records in Big 10 play. The Golden Gophers are suddenly respected enough to draw considerable action on their over win total, as the price on the under opened all the way at minus-145 before action pushed it down. It’s a leap of faith as Minnesota faces the toughest schedule of any team in the conference’s West division and loses its two best players on both offense and defense.


Odds to win the Big Ten: 60-to-1

Win total: 6 (over plus-110, under minus-140)

Week 1 line: Northwestern plus-12.5 vs. Stanford

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: It’s not a scientific measure, but the Wildcats must rank near the top in sending Las Vegas sports books into a tizzy at the end of their games. They’ve been a part of a disproportionate number of point-spread sweats over recent years. Sure enough, five of their games over the last two seasons have come down to the last play and exactly half of Northwestern’s contests have been decided by a touchdown or less. Now coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team must find out how to get on the right side of the nailbiters as they’re 3-9 in the aforementioned games since 2013. They’re also 8-16 against the spread over the last two seasons, which has given bettors pause heading into 2015. Northwestern has seen both its odds to win the Big Ten and the price on its under win total rise. The 2012 campaign where Northwestern led the nation at 11-1-1 versus the number feels much longer than three years ago.


Odds to win the Big 10: 100-to-1

Win total: 4.5 (over minus-140, under plus-110)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Richmond)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: Making sense of Maryland’s debut season in the Big Ten is like reading the lyrics off of its Star Spangled Banner jerseys — impossible. The Terrapins were able to go 4-4 straight-up and against the spread to reach bowl eligibility despite getting outgained by just short of 100 yards per game in conference play. Maryland pulled off three outright upsets on the road — against Indiana, Penn State and Michigan — to reach the postseason, where Stanford steamrolled it 45-21 as 14-point favorites in the Foster Farms Bowl. Analyzing last season might be futile anyway as much will change in College Park, Md., this year with the Terrapins returning a conference-low 10 starters.


Odds to win the Big 10: 100-to-1

Win total: 5.5 (over minus-120, under minus-110)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Southern Illinois)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: Eight years have passed since the Hoosiers posted a winning record and advanced to a bowl game. It’s also been six years since they’ve proven a profitable bet. Indiana has played particularly poorly in conference play, going 16-64 straight-up and 34-46 against the spread. The hope this year revolves on the return of quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who injured his shoulder midway through last season. Sudfeld has thrown for more than 4,000 yards with 34 touchdowns and 13 interceptions throughout a career that’s seen him earn starts every year.


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Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, top, tries to jump over Illinois tacklers Levaris Little, bottom, and Clayton Fejedelem during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Illinois 55-14. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Odds to win the Big 10: 200-to-1

Win total: 4 (over minus-163, under plus-133)

Week 1 line: Illinois minus-16 vs. Kent State

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Illini heated up at the end of last season, upsetting Penn State and Northwestern outright in the final two weeks to improbably reach a bowl game. Almost every significant contributor is back including quarterback Wes Lunt, running back Josh Ferguson and the top four receivers. The schedule might be to blame for bettors firing on Illinois’ under win total — which opened at plus-150. The Illini’s Big Ten home games come against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, which means they likely won’t be favored in a single conference game.


Odds to win the Big Ten: 300-to-1

Win total: 5 (over minus-155, under plus-125)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Norfolk State)

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Rutgers' Daryl Stephenson (98) and Sebastian Joseph (51) celebrate as fans flood the field after Rutgers defeated Michigan 26-24 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, in Piscataway, N.J.

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Scarlet Knights tend to defy expectations on an annual basis. They’ve gone over their win total in three of the last four years, and posted a winning record against the spread as an underdog in every season dating back to 2010. This season will really put that reputation to the test, as Rutgers is right with Maryland as the least experienced team in the Big Ten. Gamblers are giving Rutgers the benefit of the doubt as they’ve built the juice on its over 5.5 wins.


Odds to win the Big Ten: 300-to-1

Win total: 4 (over minus-125, under minus-105)

Week 1 line: Purdue plus-7.5 at Marshall

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: None

Overview: The Boilermakers have some of the characteristics of a turnaround team, as they bring back 15 starters after being quietly competitive last year. Purdue finished with a winning record against the spread, 7-5, but went 3-9 straight-up after going 0-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown. It remains to be seen whether bettors have the courage get behind a team that’s gone 54-65-2 against the spread over the last 10 years as there aren’t many preseason betting options for teams like Purdue. The lone early indicator isn’t great, however, as several sports books added a hook to the opener against Marshall after Purdue only opened as a 7-point underdog.

Six pack of picks: Oct. 10 Nebraska plus-1.5 vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 17 Michigan plus-7 vs. Michigan State, Nebraska over 8 wins at minus-160, Northwestern over 6 wins at plus-110, Indiana under 5.5 wins at minus-110, Rutgers under 5 wins at plus-125

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

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