Matt York / AP
Friday, Sept. 4, 2015 | noon
Betting odds support the unfortunate truth that college football is starting with a whimper this season.
Of the 27 teams listed at a price of 100-to-1 or less to win the national championship at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, only two of them play each other over the opening weekend. And that game, a neutral-site clash between Alabama and Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, isn’t seen as terribly competitive.
Alabama is a 12-point favorite and rising with the minus-500 moneyline implying an 82 percent chance it will prevail. There are 29 games scheduled between Football Bowl Subdivision teams from Friday to Monday with just two of them carrying a point-spread of less than a touchdown.
One of the contests, Old Dominion minus-4.5 at Eastern Michigan, pits two of the worst teams in the nation and will draw sparse betting action. The other features Texas A&M giving 3.5 points to Arizona State in Houston for one of the week’s main attractions.
The Sundevils and Aggies could supply an instant classic, and not make up for the average 18-point spread across all of college football. The approach of major programs loading up on the harmless lower tier early in the season is nothing new, but it’s more prevalent this year.
Talking Points marches forward either way and digs through the dregs to find the 10 biggest games to analyze and pick against the spread each week.
Last season the blog finished 102-80-2 against the spread through bowl season, which is a high standard to uphold. Realistically, the goal is anything above .500 given the inherent unprofitability of forcing a bet on all of the biggest games. The record stands at 1-1 after Thursday's games.
Click through below for week 1 of this year’s college football by the odds series.
Washington plus-13 at Boise State, over/under: 55.5; Friday at 4 p.m. on ESPN
Chris Petersen has coached 50 games at Albertsons Stadium and never until now has he entered as an underdog.
Those are the perils of switching to the visitors sideline, even for a legendary coach who went 48-2 straight-up in the venue. The line isn’t without reason.
Petersen’s first year at Washington registered as a disappointment at 8-6 straight-up, 7-7 against the spread despite fielding four of the top 44 picks in the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Boise State coach Bryan Harsin pulled off something Petersen could never accomplish in winning the Mountain West with a 12-2 straight-up, 8-6 against the spread record.
Boise State brings back double the amount of starters over Washington, which bettors have lined up against all offseason. For all of Petersen’s successes, he went just 22-25 against the spread in home games with three games early in his career unlined against Football Championship Subdivision opponents.
The losing recod was largely a symptom of coaching Boise State, which gets enough action to inflate point spreads.
Pick: Washington plus-13 Petersen often got the benefit of the doubt in these big non-conference showdowns, but does Harsin deserve the same credit?
Stanford minus-12 at Northwestern, over/under: 47.5; Saturday at 9 a.m. on ESPN
It’s an early rise for a fresh start in the unofficial Wunderkind Turnaround Bowl.
Both of these highly regarded educational institutions endured down years on the gridiron by their individual standards last year. But the bad times don’t look like they’ll last.
Shoddy luck victimized the Cardinal and the Wildcats, which collectively went 3-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less and posted a minus-7 turnover margin.
Stanford ended the season on a high when returning quarterback Kevin Hogan got its passing game on track. Northwestern boasts a stiff pass defense, however, with cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris.
Conversely, Northwestern projects to lean on its ground game with running back Justin Jackson while breaking in freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. That plays into Stanford’s strength for stopping the run, with concrete-like Blake Martinez at middle linebacker.
Pick: Northwestern plus-12 Stanford is a bet-on for the season, but the affliction of close games will strike in this extremely early kickoff for the west coast team.
Virginia plus-19 at UCLA, over/under: 52.5; Saturday at 12:30 on Fox
More than a couple bettors out there must like UCLA as much as Talking Points.
The Bruins opened as 17-point favorites in their opener as soon as week 1 lines began to trickle out, but now sit a field goal higher at most sports books in town. Based on last year’s meeting between the two teams, there’s value on the Cavaliers.
Virginia outgained UCLA and kept the game close in a 28-20 loss as 20-point underdogs. Quarterback Matt Johns, who split time with current Georgia signal caller Greyson Lambert in last year’s game, is the most major Virginia contributor returning from that game.
UCLA, meanwhile, has almost everyone back. The exception is at quarterback where five-star recruit Josh Rosen becomes the first true freshman to ever start for UCLA.
Virginia has played four Pac-12 opponents over the last six years, going 0-4 straight-up but 2-2 against the spread.
Pick: UCLA minus-19 Not much value in this one with the line move, but the Bruins are the play at less than three touchdowns.
Louisville plus-10.5 vs. Auburn in Atlanta, over/under: 58; Saturday at 12:30 on Fox
Handicapping how Louisville coach Bobby Petrino deals with the flashbacks this contest is certain to harvest is an inexact science.
Petrino notoriously tried to leave Louisville for Auburn during his first tenure at the school. When the deal fell apart, he instead eventually wound up coaching in the site of today’s game at the Georgia Dome with the Atlanta Falcons.
Petrino usually battles the elements pretty successfully, going 67-44-1 against the spread in his college-coaching career. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has been just as impressive in a small sample, 24-14 against the spread in three seasons, and comes in with sky-high expectations for the second year in a row.
The Tigers have drawn roughly three out of every four bets against the Cardinals, fitting in line with the rest of their offseason trends. They’re a trendy College Football Playoff pick with odds to win the national championship down to 15-to-1, making them the fifth choice.
New Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson has even higher expectations as the fourth choice to win the Heisman Trophy at 12-to-1.
Pick: Louisville plus-10.5 Still not buying on Auburn.
BYU plus-7 at Nebraska, over/under: 60; Saturday at 12:30 on ABC
The betting market either can’t decide what it thinks of BYU or had a sudden realization that Nebraska was bound to surpass expectations.
The Cougars were the most popular bet earlier in the summer when the Golden Nugget released its game of the year lines, drawing action in every contest including the one against the Cornhuskers. BYU went down to a 5-point underdog, but the spread has crept back in Nebraska’s direction ever since.
One cause for the change is BYU running back Jamaal Williams’ decision to withdraw from school and miss the 2015 season. But a single player, especially a non-quarterback, rarely accounts for a two-point line swing.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, who missed most of last season after tearing his ACL, was the biggest cause of optimism anyway. He’s at full-strength and looking to continue on last year’s pace that saw him start by averaging six yards per carry and 7.5 yards per pass attempt in the first four games.
Nebraska has a successful dual threat quarterback of its own in Tommy Armstrong, who threw for nearly 2,700 yards and ran for more than 700 in 2014. The pressure is on two defenses that were inconsistent a year ago.
Pick: BYU plus-7 When in doubt, fade the debuting coach.
Penn State minus-7 at Temple, over/under: 44; Saturday at 12:30 on ABC
There’s not a shorter point total on the board for college football’s first weekend, and it started even lower.
Several sports books opened the over/under at 39 before action sprung it up. These in-state rivals rely on defense as both stop units ranked in the top 20 in most cumulative categories a season ago and return the bulk of their players.
Penn State has defeated Temple in 31 straight meetings, including going 5-3 against the spread in games over the last decade. The Owls and Nittany Lions were locked at 6 midway through the third quarter last year before Temple quarterback PJ Walker threw four interceptions to help Penn State to a 30-13 victory as 11-point favorites.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenburg also struggled against Temple, completing 12 of 26 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
Pick: Temple plus-7 Worried about the Owls scoring but the numbers say this is a closer game.
Arizona State plus-3.5 vs. Texas A&M in Houston, over/under: 70; Saturday at 4 on ESPN
The betting handle and attention on Alabama vs. Wisconsin and Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech will dwarf the volume on this game.
But the odds aren’t outrageous that the Pac-12-SEC showdown will be the one looked back on as the most significant. The coaches from each of these two teams are not so subtly suggesting that this year’s groups are the best they’ve presided over at their respective schools.
Optimism starts with the quarterbacks. Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici backed up Taylor Kelly last season but was even more efficient when inserted during a midseason injury to the latter.
Texas A&M signal caller Kyle Allen spurred somewhat of a late-season resurgence when he came off the bench to lead his team to the biggest upset of the year spread-wise in a 41-38 win at Auburn as 23.5-point underdogs.
Pick: Arizona State plus-3.5 Finally it’s a side I actually feel comfortable backing.
Texas plus-9 at Notre Dame, over/under: 50; Saturday at 4:30 on NBC
Bettors who have taken the Longhorns or Fighting Irish consistently over the last five years live in regret.
The programs are tall in stature, but short in profitability. They’ve collectively gone 10 games under .500 against the spread since 2010, a helplessness assisted by annually high expectations that usually aren’t reached.
Both programs fancy themselves as contenders in 2015 with new wrinkles. Notre Dame is transitioning to a run-first attack to play to the strengths of new quarterback Malik Zaire and an offensive line that returns Bishop Gorman graduate Ronnie Stanley for his senior year.
Texas coach Charlie Strong has put an emphasis on getting the most talented players on the field, even if that means handfuls of freshmen will be debuting in South Bend, Ind.
The Longhorns played better on the road a season ago, going 3-1 straight-up and against the spread.
Pick: Notre Dame minus-9 It’s the start of a long season for Texas.
Wisconsin plus-11 vs. Alabama in Dallas, over/under: 49; Saturday at 5 on ABC
The betting market has apparently forgiven Alabama for its 42-35 flameout against Ohio State in last year’s Sugar Bowl after they popularly bet the Crimson Tide as a 7-point favorite.
Gamblers are all over the Crimson Tide in the opener, moving the line from minus-9.5 to as high as minus-12.5. And why not? They’ve previously played five major conference opponents to open the season under coach Nick Saban, and gone 5-0 straight-up and 4-1 against the spread.
Wisconsin held its own in a similar showdown with LSU to start last year but ultimately fell 28-24 after closing as 3.5-point underdogs. Both programs automatically qualify as contenders more for their reputation than returners.
Alabama has only 10 starters back, just one less than Wisconsin. The Badgers will also debut new coach Paul Chryst, who unlike predecessors Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema has a losing lifetime against the spread record.
Pick: Alabama minus-11 Weary of Wisconsin’s new regime.
Ohio State minus-14 at Virginia Tech, over/under: 52.5; Monday at 5 on ESPN
Increased scrutiny has sunk more than defending national champions’ aspirations to repeat.
It’s also rendered betting on teams coming off of a title virtually impossible. The last 10 national champions have combined to go 58-68 against the spread in their next season.
There’s already evidence of Ohio State facing the same inflated point spreads as their counterparts. The Buckeyes gave only 11 points to Virginia Tech at home last season in a game they lost 35-21, and now are expected to lay three more on the road.
Then again, not even betting on defending national champions has been worse than backing Virginia Tech in recent years. The Hokies are 18-33-1 against the spread since 2011.
They bring back as many starters as the Buckeyes, making this the rare primetime college football showdown that feels like a true rematch.
Pick: Virginia Tech plus-14 It’s scary to type, but the Hokies are going to be one of the most improved teams in the nation.