AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Dust off those vacant sports book seats and roll out the hot dog truck. It’s the last Saturday of the year without college football.
The sport has a soft opening of sorts this season with five games scheduled for next Saturday. After that, it’s right into the typical, full regular-season schedule.
Local bookmakers are prepared, and bettors should be too. Allow Talking Points to alleviate some of the pressure that comes with the late cram session.
Check out our list of six bet-on teams this season — one from each major conference as well as our local Mountain West — and come back next week for a similar rundown of bet-against squads.
North Carolina State
It’s too bad the Wolfpack are stuck in the Coastal division, because they could have potentially made a run at the ACC Championship Game this year if they were in the Atlantic. In the current alignment, it would have to be considered a success if NC State upset one of the Florida State, Clemson and Louisville triumvirate. Don’t put it past the Wolfpack, especially considering they get the Tigers and Cardinals at home. Even if they don’t end up topping their usual seven or eight wins, the Wolfpack have too much talent not to cover more often. They return 17 starters off of a team that was stingy last year but ultimately unlucky to go 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley made the most of his sophomore season, showing progress throughout. The Wolfpack’s defensive front seven was one of the best in the ACC last year, and six of the starters are back. That includes Bradley Chubb and Kentavius Street, who combined for 16 sacks.
With great shame come great sales prices. Everyone is too preoccupied coming up with punch lines about Ole Miss’ turbulent offseason, capped by former coach Hugh Freeze’s escort scandal last month, to consider betting it. That should make the Rebels underdogs in several occasions, which is exactly when to pounce on them in sports books. Under Freeze, Ole Miss has gone 13-6 against the spread when taking points. This team should still look similar to Freeze’s teams despite his firing and the school’s scholarship restrictions. Interim coach Matt Luke was Freeze’s top lieutenant for the last five years. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who guided record-breaking offenses at Sam Houston State in the Football Championship Subdivision the last three years, was considered a great hiring coup. Longo has plenty of pieces to work with between former five-star quarterback Shea Patterson and a crop of talented sophomore classmates at receiver in Van Jefferson, D.J. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. Ole Miss’ defense returns even more experience. The Rebels won’t be eligible for postseason play, but that doesn’t preclude them from being the usual pain for their SEC West rivals.
Last season was a down year for Stanford betting-wise — and it still put a 7-6 against the spread record. It marked the fifth time in six years that the Cardinal have proven profitable under coach David Shaw, with the one exception being a 7-7 finish in 2013. The betting market never pays enough attention to Stanford, and that should be the case again this year with the loss of Christian McCaffrey to the NFL overestimated. Most of the rest of the offense returns including junior quarterback Keller Chryst, who overcame a slow start and caught fire at the end of last season. Chryst did tear his ACL in a Sun Bowl victory over North Carolina, but reports on his condition out of his camp are incredibly enthusiastic. Stanford is the biggest competition for Washington in the Pac-12 North, and the Cardinal get the Huskies at home on a Friday night in November. Don’t be surprised if Stanford reaches the Pac-12 Championship Game for the fourth time in six years.
The knock on the Wildcats last year was they were young and inconsistent. That could be solved this season with more two-way production back than any team in the Big Ten except Penn State. In the futures, Northwestern is 25-to-1 to win the conference. That’s not exactly a great bet because it won’t happen, but the price is notable because it’s below both Iowa and Nebraska at 20-to-1, two teams Northwestern is better than. The Wildcats are also blessed with a manageable schedule, avoiding Ohio State and Michigan out of the East and getting Penn State at home. A trip to Wisconsin is the only game where Northwestern is guaranteed to be a double-digit underdog.
The distance between Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 Conference is a gulf. The Sooners are so much better that there was some concern value would be minimal after going 17-1 straight-up, 13-5 against the spread in the conference over the last two years. Then coach Bob Stoops surprisingly stepped down after 18 years in June to hand the job to 33-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The betting market didn’t like it, as the Sooners rose from 8-to-1 to 18-to-1 to win the national championship. The move was baffling; there’s a reason the “Big Game Bob” moniker was mocked relentlessly over the last few years. Oklahoma always looked ill prepared in a couple key spots, with last year’s examples being losses to Houston and Ohio State in two of its first three games. It’s a risk to assume Riley can solve the problem, but one worth taking with senior quarterback Baker Mayfield back to help. Mayfield is a 10-to-1 second choice to win the Heisman — behind USC’s Sam Darnold and tied with Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — and 20 yards away from 10,000 for his career and 12 touchdowns away from 100.
Here’s another case of divisional-alignment disappointment, because Utah State could have been a real contender in the Mountain West Conference’s West division. In the Mountain, the Aggies are clearly behind Boise State and Colorado State. That still puts them third, which is better than they’re being priced. Last year was a nightmare for Utah State as four of its losses came by a total of 18 points. That provides only a minor excuse for an overall 3-9 straight-up, 4-8 against the spread record that continued the trend of the team getting worse in every year of coach Matt Wells’ tenure. Wells is in a make or break season, but he should be capable of saving his job with his team’s three best skill players returning — quarterback Kent Myers, running back Tonny Lindsey and receiver Ron’quavion Tarver — in a weak Mountain West.