AP Photo/Mike Stewart
Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 | 2 a.m.
It’s time to counterbalance college football betting optimism with some pessimism.
Last week, Talking Points started positive by picking six bet-on teams for the upcoming season. Now it’s time for negativity after combing the five major conferences and the regional Mountain West for a bet-against team in each league.
Read below for the list of teams to avoid in the sports book this year.
The Yellow Jackets return an ACC Coastal division-high 16 starters off a team that finished last season with four straight wins including upsets over Virginia Tech and Georgia. That means they should be great, right? Not quite. Georgia Tech was extremely fortunate to go 9-4 last year. It went 3-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, and ranked sixth in the nation in recovering 66 percent of fumbles. Those are both red flags where some regression should be expected. Odds-wise, Georgia Tech starts the season behind divisional rivals Miami and Virginia Tech but ahead of North Carolina and Pittsburgh. It’s debatable at best that the Yellow Jackets are better than the Tar Heels and Panthers.
After a relative down season in 2016, the SEC West should be back as the best division in college football this year. That’s bad news for the Tigers, who have their work cut out in maintaining their place as the league’s second most prestigious program behind Alabama. New coach Ed Orgeron did a decent job leading LSU and USC in an interim role over the last few years — a loss at home to Florida as a 14-point favorite last season precludes it from being described as anything better than that — but he’s still only 21-25-1 against the spread for his career. Adding to his first-year challenges are one of the toughest schedules in the nation and the loss of top playmakers on both sides of the ball. Journeyman senior quarterback Danny Etling doesn’t inspire much confidence either, especially not with five of his top six targets departed.
The Trojans are minus-110 to win the Pac-12 Conference, something they haven’t accomplished in nine years. The betting market is repeating its tried pattern. Every few years, betting slips on USC become a hot commodity as they have this season with it drawing the most tickets of any team to win the national championship at William Hill sports books. And every few years, USC ultimately disappoints. In 2015, the Trojans went 8-6 straight-up and 6-8 against the spread after similar hype. In 2012, it was even worse — 7-6 straight-up and 3-10 against the spread. USC does have the most talent in the Pac-12 this season, especially with 5-to-2 Heisman Trophy favorite Sam Darnold at quarterback, but that doesn’t guarantee success. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee success in sports books. Even if USC turns into the national championship contender many expect, it will be tough covering point spreads inflated by public money every week.
The Big Ten was the toughest conference to find a bet-against. With the least experience of any team in the nation, Michigan was a strong candidate but coach Jim Harbaugh is too proven at consistently beating betting numbers. Penn State figures to carry high asking prices after last year’s breakthrough, but the rest of the conference looks ill equipped to combat its uptempo offensive attack. That leaves a crowded middle class to choose from, where Minnesota looks like it might have high expectations by default. The Golden Gophers could be favored in as many as eight games this season. They’re 4-9 against the spread as favorites in the last two seasons. Minnesota made one of the best hires in college football this offseason in Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, but its roster is not currently equipped with the type of personnel he needs to fully integrate his preferred spread-passing attack. It’s going to take time for Fleck to get Minnesota into contention, just as it did after he debuted at Western Michigan with a 1-11 straight-up, 4-8 against the spread record in his first season.
Not to pick on teams that few expect much from anyway, but Texas Tech has a glaring weakness that can’t be ignored. As usual, the Red Raiders are unlikely to play any defense. Texas Tech ranked last in the nation in 2016 by giving up 7.3 yards per play against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, and could be even worse this year. The Red Raiders at least mounted decent pressure in 2016, but lost three of its four starting defensive linemen to graduation. Texas Tech has held it together enough to go 15-10 against the spread the last two seasons in large part because of outrageous production from now-departed quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Even though the nature of Texas Tech’s offense virtually guarantees another season of producing big numbers, it would be foolish not to expect at least a small decline without Mahomes.
Given the service academy’s reliance on veteran players, Air Force endures major roster turnover every year. The Falcons usually manage it well, but that shouldn’t be treated as an annual guarantee. Not this year, when the losses to graduation are bigger than ever. Air Force brings back only seven starters, with linebacker Grant Ross the lone one on defense. If that’s not enough, the young team will have to spar with the Mountain West’s toughest schedule. Air Force travels to both Colorado State and Boise State, the favorites in the Mountain division, while drawing two-time defending champions San Diego State out of the West division. Last season’s 10 victories were an anomaly, and the Falcons might be hard-pressed to get half as many this year.