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December 18, 2017

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College football by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of Week 6

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AP Photo/Young Kwak

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, left, and an official look at the video screen during the second half of an NCAA college football game between Washington State and Southern California in Pullman, Wash., Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

One of sports betting’s best kept secrets is out.

There’s no more hiding Washington State after its monumental 30-27 victory over USC as 4.5-point underdogs last week. The Cougars had made for a solid investment over the last several years, having gone 37-31 against the spread since coach Mike Leach arrived in Pullman, Wash., five years ago including 22-14 as an underdog.

Chances to take advantage of the Cougars in that role will now be rare, as they’re even favored at Oregon this week for the first time in almost exactly 20 years.

Sports books have also adjusted their future odds accordingly with Washington State’s 5-0 straight-up, 3-2 against the spread start to the season. At William Hill sports books, the Cougars made the biggest move up the board after Week 5 in going from 125- to 60-to-1 to win the national championship.

The Evergreen State as a whole is making its presence felt in college football this season. William Hill lists 16 teams at 100-to-1 or less to win the College Football Playoff, and only three states are home to two of them.

Alabama and Oklahoma were to be expected, but Washington has crashed the party with the Cougars’ archrival Huskies at 10-to-1. It’s a far cry from 2008, when the state was a laughingstock with the two teams a combined 2-23 straight-up and 5-20 against the spread.

Check below for a betting preview and pick of Washington State at Oregon, and the other nine biggest games of the week. Talking Points is looking to bounce back from one of its worst-ever weeks, where the blog went 4-11 against the spread to pull the season record down to 37-40-1. Picks are labeled in three separate confidence categories, with extra picks provided at the end, and lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas at the time of writing.

    • Northwestern's Clayton Thorson throws during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Madison, Wis.

      Penn State minus-14.5 at Northwestern, over/under: 53.5; 9 a.m. on ABC

      Northwestern delivered for the house last Saturday as a more than a two- touchdown underdog against a Big Ten divisional favorite.

      Bookmakers are hoping the Wildcats can come through in an identical role this morning. Northwestern drew just one-third of the tickets wagered at William Hill sports books last week ahead of its 33-24 loss but cover of the 16.5-point spread.

      It might get even less Penn State, but will need to play better in order to secure a third straight cover. The loss against the Badgers wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

      Northwestern relied on a positive turnover margin and squandered Wisconsin opportunities to hang in the game.

      Then again, Penn State benefited from a similar formula in its 45-14 blowout over Indiana as 19.5-point favorites last week. The Nittany Lions are good enough — Give them four turnovers like the Hoosiers and they’re bound to send sports books in celebration.

      Like Wisconsin, Penn State had two-thirds of the tickets at William Hill against Indiana. The Nittany Lions are a main betting attraction in the Big Ten; the Wildcats are an afterthought.

      Guess: Northwestern plus-14.5

    • Georgia running back Nick Chubb (27) runs against Mississippi State during the first of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Athens, Ga.

      Georgia minus-17.5 at Vanderbilt, over/under: 42; 9 a.m. on ESPN

      Georgia is officially back among the national championship contenders for the first time in almost exactly two years.

      On Oct. 3, 2015, the Bulldogs laid 1.5 points to Alabama in a home game that was supposed to coronate their chances to make the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Crimson Tide rolled to a 38-10 blowout victory that marked the beginning of the end of coach Mark Richt’s tenure.

      Second-year coach Kirby Smart has the Bulldogs back to the top of betting boards ahead of schedule. Georgia is 10-to-1 to win the national championship at William Hill — behind only Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma — after walloping Tennessee 41-0 as 10-point favorites last week.

      The Bulldogs have covered in every game against Football Bowl Subdivision competition this season, as well gone under the point total. Their defense ranks second in the nation, narrowly trailing Michigan, in giving up 3.6 yards per play against FBS teams.

      Offensively, Georgia has run the ball on 69 percent of its plays with senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combining to average nearly 6 yards per carry. To carry on their success, the Bulldogs will need to navigate a team and venue that’s haunted them lately.

      Vanderbilt has covered the last four in the series, going 2-2 against the spread, with Georgia not beating the spread in Nashville since 2009.

      Guess: Over 42 points

    • West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V (13) during the first half/second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Morgantown, W.Va.

      West Virginia plus-13 at TCU, over/under: 61; 12:30 p.m. in Fox Sports 1

      This pairing is, in essence, forcing gamblers to choose between what they value more between lopsided victories or quality victories.

      Most of them are picking the latter, driving the line on this Big 12 game between two rested teams up from opening at minus-11.5. TCU has among the best trios of wins in the country — having beaten Oklahoma State, Arkansas and SMU — but it hasn’t completely demolished any of them.

      West Virginia, on the other hand, has won three straight by an average of 34 points per game but the competition leaves much to be desired — Kansas, Delaware State and East Carolina. The Mountaineers’ Air Raid offense is producing better than ever despite breaking in scores of new players this season.

      Quarterback Will Grier is just outside the nation’s top 10 with 9.5 yards per passing attempt, while receiver David Sills leads the country with seven touchdown receptions.

      It will be a test for a similarly rebuilt TCU secondary, led by Travin Howard and Ridwan Issahaku, that has proven somewhat of a liability this season. The Horned Frogs have given up 8.5 yards per pass attempt against FBS team, ranking in the nation’s bottom 20.

      Competition must be considered, however, because TCU hasn’t faced any cakewalks.

      Lean: TCU minus-13

    • Miami's Mark Walton, right, jumps over Duke's Ben Humphreys and Bryon Fields Jr. during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

      Miami minus-3 at Florida State, over/under: 47.5; 12:30 p.m. on ESPN

      The line on this rivalry game has swung 15 points over the last month — and it might not be done yet.

      Florida State was a 12-point favorite before quarterback Deondre Francois went down with an injury in a Week 1 loss to Alabama, and it’s been a chore quantifying the drop that comes with turning to backup James Blackman. Although Florida State pushed the minus-7 spread in a 26-19 win at Wake Forest last week, its performance didn’t help give bettors any confidence.

      The Demon Deacons gained nearly 100 more yards and 1.1 yards per play more than the Seminoles, which were fortunate to escape when Blackman completed his longest pass of the day to Auden Tate for the game-winner in the final minute.

      Florida State’s offensive inefficiency alone was probably enough for bettors to look to go against it, but a dominant road victory from Miami last week surely augmented this game’s action. The Hurricanes pulled away from Duke immediately, cruising to a 31-6 win as 5.5-point favorite.

      Miami quarterback Malik Rosier has stepped into his offense much more smoothly than Blackman, with 10 total touchdowns on the season. He’s a big reason the line keeps moving towards the Hurricanes, which re-opened as a 1-point underdog in this game on Sunday before the money rushed in on them.

      Play: Florida State plus-3

    • Troy cornerback Marcus Jones (8) is tackled on a return against LSU safety Todd Harris Jr. (33) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

      LSU plus-3 at Florida, over/under: 45; 12:30 on CBS

      Struggle. Desperation. Revenge. Madness.

      The themes pervading the SEC’s premier interdivisional rivalry rattle off like the trailer of a suspense film. Neither the Gators nor the Tigers enter in a comfortable spot.

      Florida covered for the first time this season in last week’s 38-24 win over Vanderbilt as 9.5-point favorites, but lost supposed offensive savior Luke Del Rio to a collarbone injury in the process. Now it’s back to freshman quarterback Feliepe Franks, who’s taken the majority of the snaps on the season and therefore done his part in contributing to Florida’s offensive issues.

      The Gators ranks 69th in the nation on offense by Bill Connelly’s S&P ratings. The Tigers are well ahead at 35th, but it often hasn’t looked like it.

      Two weeks after getting shut down by Mississippi State, LSU committed four turnovers to doom itself to an inexcusable 24-21 loss to Troy as 20-point favorites last week. Embattled first-year coach Ed Orgeron responded in-game by asking offensive coordinator Matt Canada to cut down on pre-snap motions and shifts — the hallmark of his offense — and afterwards by banning his players from social media.

      As if there isn’t enough for these two teams to figure out, they’re still dealing with fallout from the cancelation of last year’s originally scheduled matchup due to Hurricane Matthew. LSU refused to lose a home game for the reschedule, and instead forced Florida to come to Baton Rouge, La., with the trade-off being playing on the road in the series for the next two years.

      The coaching staffs and administrations on both sides still believe the other wronged them.

      Play: LSU plus-3

    • Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson, right, tries to tackle Southern California running back Stephen Carr during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. USC won 27-24 in overtime.

      Kansas State plus-4.5 at Texas, over/under: 50; 4 p.m. on Fox Sports 1

      If the action in this game is indicative of the rule, an embarrassing upset defeat causes a three-game moratorium on the public backing the losing side in bulk.

      Memories of the Longhorns’s season-opening 51-41 loss to Maryland as 18-point favorites have finally dissipated. Nearly 80 percent of the tickets are on Texas ahead of its Big 12 home opener against Kansas State.

      And yet the line has moved the other way, dropping from as high as minus-6. That movement is telltale sign that the bigger money is on the underdog.

      The lack of public bettors taking Kansas State also supports the three-game theory. The Wildcats are only two games removed from losing 14-7 at Vanderbilt as 5-point favorites.

      They also failed to cover in a 33-20 win over Baylor last week as 14.5-point favorites. Kansas State’s offense may not have lived up to expectations yet, but its defense has surpassed their own.

      The Wildcats are giving up 3 yards per rush attempt to rank in the nation’s top 15, a strength that should help against a Texas team that likes to pace itself behind running back Chris Warren and Kyle Porter.

      Texas is also strong against the ground game, allowing 3.3 yards per rush, to give Kansas State’s run-first quarterback Jesse Ertz and running back Alex Barnes a similar challenge.

      Lean: Kansas State plus-4.5

    • Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts runs the ball against Mississippi during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

      Alabama minus-27 at Texas A&M, over/under: 55.5; 4:15 p.m. on ESPN

      Alabama has reached such exalted status that the point spread simply can’t be high enough to prevent most bettors from backing the Crimson Tide.

      And it’s hard to blame them. Alabama closed as a combined 50-point favorite the last two weeks against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, and proceeded to win by a combined 122 points.

      That brings the Crimson Tide to the Aggies, which have only once taken more than three touchdowns on the betting line during coach Kevin Sumlin’s tenure. That was in 2014 when they shocked Auburn 41-38 as 24-point underdogs.

      Given Texas A&M’s history, and the fact that it’s covered in every game against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition this season, it will get some betting attention this week, right? Think again.

      Alabama is again on the move upwards with this spread opening at minus-25.5. The Crimson Tide look like a team without weakness at the moment, as any concern over the passing game has been alleviated with the way they’ve opened conference play.

      Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts is up to 9.7 yards per passing attempt — 2.4 yards better than he was last season — with junior receiver Calvin Ridley one of the surest-handed pass catchers in the nation.

      Texas A&M’s defense has caused much havoc led by edge rushers Landis Durham and Tyrel Dodson, but Alabama presents a different challenge all together.

      Guess: Under 55.5 points

    • Michigan wide receiver Tarik Black (7) rushes after a reception in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Air Force in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Michigan won 29-13.

      Michigan State plus-10.5 at Michigan, over/under: 40; 4:30 p.m. on ABC

      Call it the curse of the “little brother.”

      Former Michigan running back Mike Hart used those words to mock Michigan State after a 2007 win and cover, and the Wolverines haven’t beaten the point spread a single time in the series ever since. They’re also only 2-7 straight-up, including last year’s 32-23 win over the Spartans as 24-point favorites.

      Wolverines’ backers could find reasons to convince themselves that this is the year everything changes. Michigan is in situational advantage, coming off of a bye week after stomping Purdue 28-10 as 11-point favorites two weeks ago.

      Michigan State, meanwhile, played back-to-back physical games against Notre Dame, a 38-18 loss as 3-point underdogs, and Iowa, a 17-10 win as 3-point favorites. The good news is, sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke was stellar in both games, throwing for 7 yards per attempt with four touchdowns to no interceptions.

      Michigan will turn to senior quarterback John O’Korn for his first start this season after Wilton Speight went down with an injury early against Purdue. O’Korn’s numbers are at least on par with Speight’s through his career, and many believed him to be the better passer despite losing the preseason quarterback competition for two straight years.

      Guess: Michigan minus-10.5

    • Oregon's Kani Benoit, center, break into the open for a touchdown run against California during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Eugene, Ore.

      Washington State minus-2.5 at Oregon, over/under: 61; 5 p.m. on Fox

      A case could be made that everything is continuing to break right for the Cougars this season.

      Not only are they the toast of sports books, if not the nation, for three straight wins and covers, but now what looked like potentially their toughest spot of the season has become much easier. For its first road game, Washington State gets to face what might be the most significantly injured team in the nation.

      The Ducks are beat up all over the field, which has caused the Cougars to become the favorite on the betting line. Among the Oregon players expected out for this game are starting quarterback Justin Herbert, leading receiver Dillon Mitchell and starting linebacker Kaulana Apelu.

      The Ducks might have caught a small break with leading rusher Royce Freeman and backup quarterback Taylor Allie upgraded to probable after getting sidelined themselves last week. Having Freeman available could specifically prove important against the Cougars.

      All the praise has gone towards long-time quarterback Luke Falk, who’s second in the nation with 16 touchdown passes, but Washington State’s undefeated start has just as much to do with an outstanding pass defense. The Cougars have been less rigid against the run, allowing 4.2 yards per attempt versus FBS competition to rank 62nd in the nation.

      Oregon already runs on 62 percent of its plays, and could up the split with Allie replacing Herbert.

      Guess: Oregon plus-2.5

    • Utah linebacker Sunia Tauteoli, left, tackles Southern California running back Justin Davis (22) in the second half during an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 23, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Utah won 31-27.

      Stanford minus-4.5 at Utah, over/under: 50.5; 7:15 p.m. on Fox Sports 1

      Eight teams that have played at least four games remain undefeated against the spread heading into Week 6.

      Utah, the Pac-12 Conference’s lone representative, might be among the most surprising of them all. With only a small number of returners, the Utes were supposed to take a step back this season.

      Instead, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has dialed up his usual combination of strong defense and deliberate pace to success. Utah ranks in the nation’s top 10 by only giving up 4.1 yards per play.

      The Utes may have one of the best linebacking corps around with Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga already combining 44 tackles. Expect to hear more about them if they can solve the Bryce Love puzzle.

      The Stanford senior became the first player in the nation to cross 1,000 rushing yards in last week’s 34-24 victory over Arizona State as 17-point favorites. He’s also averaging a national-best 11.1 yards per carry.

      Even with Love, the majority of bettors are lukewarm on Stanford after failing to cover in three of its last four. Perhaps they’re also just coming around on Utah.

      Reports indicate three-fourths of the tickets early in the week have come in on the Utes to secure a seventh straight cover Rice-Eccles Stadium.

      Lean: Stanford minus-4.5

    • Colorado wide receiver Jay MacIntyre (14) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz.

      Extra points

      Wake Forest plus-21.5 at Clemson As mentioned earlier, Wake Forest far outplayed Florida State last week despite a 26-19 loss. The Tigers are certainly worn down and perhaps not as motivated to take on the Demon Deacons coming off of an incredibly productive month where they played every week and beat Auburn, Louisville and Virginia Tech.

      Arizona plus-7 at Colorado Arizona nearly beating Utah last week— a 30-24 loss as 4.5-point underdogs — despite committing five turnovers did nothing to quell sneaking suspicion that it’s better than priced this season. Colorado’s offense has also fallen off since last year.

      Southern Miss plus-13.5 at UTSA Not buying UTSA’s sudden ascent to Conference USA favorite considering the major troubles of the three opponents its beaten — Baylor, Southern and Texas State. This is a rare chance to get two touchdowns in an evenly matched game.

      Minnesota plus-4 at Purdue Purdue continues to be overvalued by virtue of a fluky close loss to Louisville and a demolition of a horrendous Missouri team. Minnesota’s first-year coach P.J. Fleck is just as shrewd and has more to work with than Purdue’s Jeff Brohm.

      Ball State plus-7 at Akron Didn’t want to give into MACtion again after last week’s whitewash, but these are too many points to pass up. Akron has gotten lucky to cover in two straight games where it’ been outgained, with comeuppance on the way.

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

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