AP Photo/Chris Knight
Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
College football has produced more than its share of thrilling finishes, stunning upsets and unbelievable performances this season, and yet the same complaint has reared itself going into the last few weeks of games.
Fans and analysts have bemoaned the lack of “big games” with immediate College Football Playoff implications. The gripes are always shortsighted and often unfounded, but beginning this week they should also be unseen.
A stretch of games too significant to discount starts in Week 8 and should carry all the way into bowl season. It starts in University Park, Penn.
The stacked Big Ten East division will take a major step in getting sorted out when Penn State hosts Michigan as 9.5-point favorites tonight. It’s the first time this season that oddsmakers have favored the Nittany Lions by less than two touchdowns.
To cover, they’ll need to exorcise some demons. Penn State has lost by a combined 51 points to Michigan in two meetings between the schools since Jim Harbuagh arrived as coach of the latter.
But this year’s Wolverines have yet to prove they’re on the level on those two editions. Starting quarterback Wilton Speight took a lot of crticism, but Michigan has gotten worse since he’s gone down with injury.
In replacement John O’Korn's two starts, the Wolverines had to go overtime to defeat Indiana and lost to Michigan State as 13-point favorites. That upset loss means another defeat would all but eliminate them from playoff contention.
Settle in; the playoff-packed schedule is now under way.
Read below to find Talking Points’ preview and pick of Michigan vs. Penn State along with nine of the other biggest games of the week. Extra picks are also provided at the end. Lines are the best on the chosen side in Las Vegas at time of publication. The blog’s season record stands at 54-55-1 after a 9-6 showing last week.
Oklahoma State minus-7 at Texas, over/under: 65; 9 a.m. on ABC
No surer way has existed to lose money on college football over the last couple years than betting against coach Tom Herman’s team when it’s an underdog.
Plenty have felt the pain, and are apparently adjusting accordingly. That’s the most logical way to explain reports of Texas drawing around three-fourths of the action as a home underdog to Oklahoma State this week.
Herman improved his against the spread record as an underdog to 7-0 last week as the Longhorns lost 29-24 while getting nine points on the betting line. Texas rallied to take a fourth-quarter lead despite trailing 20-0 early.
The Longhorns have now covered in every game under Herman apart from their season-opening loss to Maryland largely because of a playmaking defense. Edge-rusher Malik Jefferson is bound for the first round of the NFL Draft, where he might be joined by defensive back DeShon Elliott, who leads the nation with five interceptions.
The Longhorns were able to somewhat limit the Sooners last week, and will face a similar challenge against the Cowboys. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are tied for the national lead at gaining 8.4 yards per play against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
Guess: Oklahoma State minus-7
Tennessee plus-36 at Alabama, over/under: 50.5; 12:30 p.m. on CBS
If this turns out to be embattled Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ last game, it would be an appropriate way to make his exit.
One of Volunteers’ fans biggest gripes with Jones is his performance against rivals in his five-year tenure, which includes extending a decade-long losing streak to Alabama. Tennessee hits a new low in the Third Saturday in October rivalry this year, as it’s the biggest underdog in series history.
On the upside, the Volunteers have a lot of points on their side in an attempt to doom Alabama to its first three-game against the spread losing streak since 2012. The Crimson Tide have already failed to cover in consecutive SEC contests for the first time since 2014.
They came in beneath the number in a 41-9 win over Arkansas as 37-point favorites last week after edging Texas A&M 27-19 as 25-point favorites. At 3-4 against the spread overall, Alabama hasn’t done enough to justify the avalanche of action that comes in on it every week.
The Crimson Tide should have some extra advantages this week. Tennessee might be the worst offense it's faced, with new starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano having thrown for less than 5 yards per pass attempt so far.
Alabama is also 6-2 against the spread when giving more than 30 points under coach Nick Saban in SEC play.
Guess: Tennessee plus-36
Syracuse plus-16.5 at Miami, over/under: 59.5; 12:30 p.m. on ESPN
Miami has won back-to-back games with comebacks culminating in the final 10 seconds. Syracuse didn’t even need that much leeway in pulling arguably the upset of the year last Friday.
The Orange controlled Clemson throughout their marquee home game of the season, ultimately knocking off the Tigers 27-24 as 24-point underdogs. Junior quarterback Eric Dungey was phenomenal in completing 20 of 32 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns against one of the nation’s top pass defenses.
Statistically, Miami is a step down in that department. The Hurricanes are only 25th against the pass, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P ratings, as opposed to the Tigers’ second.
Miami’s biggest strength is its run game, which didn’t appear to suffer much of a setback after losing starter Mark Walton to injury two weeks ago. Sophomore Travis Homer was just as electric in piling up 170 yards on 20 carries in a 25-24 win over Georgia Tech as 6-point favorites last week.
Rush defense is conveniently one of Syracuse’s weaknesses. The Orange rank 85th in the nation against the run by S&P.
Guess: Miami minus-16.5
Indiana plus-7 at Michigan State, over/under: 46; 12:30 p.m. on ABC
The total in this long-running Big Ten series has dipped below 50 for the first time in 20 years for a reason.
Michigan State has relied on its defense for its dramatic resurgence this season, and Indiana hopes to do the same in the second half of the year.
The Spartans are fourth in the nation in giving up 4.1 yards per play. A particularly strong front seven featuring linebackers Joe Bachie and Chris Frey has led them to a 5-1 straight-up, 4-2 against the spread start to move past last year’s disastrous 3-9 straight-up, 4-8 against the spread season.
The Hoosiers are only 3-3 straight-up and against the spread, but consideration for the competition they’ve faced is required before any strong rebuke. They’ve faced the toughest Big Ten trio imaginable in Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
Indiana nearly broke though to take down Michigan last week before falling 27-20 as 7.5-point underdogs in overtime. The Hoosiers limited the Wolverines to below season averages on offense, just as they’ve done to nearly every opponent this season.
Linebacker Tegray Scales has led the charge, but Indiana’s secondary has performed even better in slowing passing games. For once in the Old Brass Spittoon game, points should be hard to find.
Guess: Indiana plus-7
Central Florida minus-7.5 at Navy, over/under: 65; 12:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network
UCF has emerged as the best team in the nation to bet on so far this season.
The Knights aren’t college football’s lone perfect squad against the number — they’re joined by Georgia Tech and Buffalo — but they’re the only ones covering by an average of 20 points per game. The outrageous production guided by coach Scott Frost — heavily linked to the job at his alma mater Nebraska with the expectation Mike Riley will get fired — puts UCF in a rare spot this week as a road favorite at Navy.
The Midshipmen have only taken points at Memorial Stadium eight times in a decade under coach Ken Niumatalolo, going 6-2 against the spread. Niumatalolo is a proven profitable bet, as he’s only once finished with a losing record against the spread.
Navy had a minus-4 turnover margin last week at Memphis, and still covered the plus-3.5 spread in a 30-27 loss. The Midshipmen’s triple option is currently on form, as quarterback Zach Abey has already racked up 183 rushes for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns.
It could be a test for a Knights’ rush defense that’s given up a solid but unexceptional 3.7 yards per carry on the season.
Lean: Over 65 points
Arizona State plus-9.5 at Utah, over/under: 56.5; 12:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1
The fallout over a failed two-point conversion has greatly affected the betting action in this week’s premier afternoon Pac-12 game.
Utah came a yard away from pulling ahead of USC with less than a minute to go last week, instead losing 28-27 as 13.5-point underdogs. Arizona State did what Utah couldn’t do, and finished its upset bid with a 13-7 triumph over Washington as 17.5-point underdogs.
Bettors now apparently trust the Sun Devils far more, as all the action has come in on the road team this week to push the spread down a point. If Utes quarterback Troy Williams had found the end zone on the conversion, it’s unlikely gamblers would ignore them going into this game.
Williams might not even play against Arizona State, though. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t rule out the return of injured quarterback Tyler Huntley, who won the job over the incumbent Williams in preseason, earlier this week.
The Utes had gone 4-0 straight-up and against the spread under Huntley before Williams came in and narrowly missed orchestrating upsets on back-to-back weeks. Before USC, Utah lost 23-20 to Stanford as closing 3-point underdogs.
Guess: Over 56.5 points
Oklahoma minus-14.5 at Kansas State, over/under: 53.5; 1 p.m. on Fox
The good news is one team has to cover.
Neither the Sooners nor the Wildcats have beaten a point-spread in more than a month, while spoiling promising starts to the season with carelessness that’s cost both upset losses. Kansas State has lost three of four straight-up, starting with a 14-7 defeat to Vanderbilt as 5-point favorites that looks worse by the week.
Oklahoma’s lone loss remains the 38-31 setback at Iowa State as 31-point favorites, but it struggled at both Baylor and Texas. Gamblers must make little of Oklahoma’s recent woes, as it’s been the overwhelming betting choice ahead of its trip to Kansas State.
The line opened at minus-12.5 before upwards of three-fourths of the action on the Sooners added two extra points. Kansas State never threatened to cover in a 26-6 loss to TCU as 7.5-point underdogs last week, as it toiled to less than 4 yards per play behind backup quarterback Alex Delton.
Starter Jesse Ertz could return this week, though Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has provided no assurances.
Play: Kansas State plus-14.5
Michigan plus-9.5 at Penn State, over/under: 45; 4:30 p.m. on ABC
It’s impossible to look back on Penn State’s loss to Michigan last year as anything other than the turning point in its program under fourth-year coach James Franklin.
The Nittany Lions have won 15 straight regular season games since the blowout loss to the Wolverines, going 13-1-1 against the spread. Bettors appear genuinely split on whether they can continue the tear by conquering the last team that made them look inferior.
The immediate action from the bigger bets came on Michigan, as it trimmed from opening as high as a 12.5-point underdog. Most of the bets since, however, have come on Penn State at the marked-down price, making this game appear like a two-way write for sports books and, therefore, not a big decision for the house.
There are positive indicators on both sides. Michigan leads the nation defensively in giving up 3.5 yards per play, so it’s hard to imagine Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley maintaining a pace that’s made them both mentioned as Heisman contenders.
At the same time, they likely won’t need anywhere near their average of 40 points per game given the struggles of Michigan’s offense. The Wolverines have looked especially lethargic since O’Korn took over at quarterback, as the senior has thrown for four interceptions to one touchdown.
But Michigan’s running game could be on an upswing with Karan Higdon breaking through for 200 yards against a tough Indiana defense last week.
Play: Michigan plus-9.5
USC plus-3.5 at Notre Dame, over/under: 65; 4:30 p.m. on NBC
Several people already have a betting investment on this rivalry game between college football bluebloods without wagering on the point spread or total.
The Trojans and Irish were both popular preseason plays in the futures market, and tonight’s game will practically kill off tickets on one of those two sides. It’s hard to imagine either team getting included in the College Football Playoff with two losses.
USC, which was plus-650 (risking $1 to win 6.50) at William Hill, was the most popular bet to win the national championship all around town going into the season. Given its large fan base and national prominence, Notre Dame always draws action to win the national championship, especially this year when offered at as high as 75-to-1 at William Hill.
Those who banked that price on the Irish are looking plenty sharp with Notre Dame's only non-cover coming in a 20-19 loss to Georgia as 5.5-point favorites in week 2. Notre Dame has the nation’s most efficient rush offense, per S&P, behind quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams.
USC remains pass-first offensively, even with quarterback Sam Darnold slipping from his preseason status as Heisman Trophy favorite. The betting line on this game shows how short USC has come to living up to expectations, or how far Notre Dame has risen.
The Irish were a 9.5-point underdog in Game of the Year lines in the preseason against the Trojans.
Lean: Notre Dame minus-3.5
Colorado plus-10 at Washington State, over/under: 52.5; 7:45 p.m. on ESPN
Bookmakers may have been tempted to petition to move this game to Friday night given how much Washington State has come through for them in that time slot.
The Cougars gave the house a big boost to its bottom line before most games even began last week when they no-showed at California and lost 37-3 as a popularly-bet 16-point favorite. That was only two weeks after they upset USC 30-27 as 4.5-point underdogs for another result beneficial to the books.
Casinos will have to settle for the Cougars playing in tonight’s final game to kick off, another spot that traditionally draws big betting handle. It just hasn’t appeared to come quite yet.
There’s been little movement on this spread aside from a few shops shaving a half-point after opening Washington State minus-10.5. Colorado may have won last week, but it played only slightly better than Washington State.
The Buffaloes had to get a touchdown pass in the final two minutes to edge Oregon State 36-33 as 9.5-point favorites. The win snapped a three-game losing streak, but put the rebuilding team at only 1-3 against the spread during the span.
Guess: Washington State minus-10
Iowa State plus-7 at Texas Tech The Cyclones’ win over Oklahoma a few weeks ago was no fluke — They’re a legitimately dangerous team that’s gone 5-1 against the spread this season. Texas Tech’s fourth-quarter collapse at West Virginia last week might have been the start to its annual implosion in conference play.
Arizona minus-3 at California Going back to the Wildcats for a third straight week because there’s no better feeling in sports betting than getting on a team’s run early and riding it out. The Golden Bears don’t have the rush defense to slow Khalil Tate and Nick Wilson.
SMU minus-7 at Cincinnati Overvalued Bearcats are mired in rebuilding process in the first year under new coach Luke Fickell. SMU, meanwhile, is beginning to fulfill coach Chad Morris’ vision in his third season.
Virginia minus-5.5 vs. Boston College Virginia has won and covered in four straight behind a vintage Bronco Mendenhall defense. The Cavaliers won’t let freshman sensation A.J. Dillon run wild for the Eagles like he did in their 45-42 win over Louisville as 21-point favorites last week.
Tulane plus-12 vs. South Florida The Bulls are leading the conversation for landing the Group of Five conferences’ New Year Six bowl bid almost entirely because of their defense. They’ll be facing a unique challenge this week, however, in Tulane’s triple-option.
Louisville plus-7 at Florida State Willing to buy low on a team led by Lamar Jackson, who’s still probably the most valuable player in college football and went for 362 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-point win over Florida State last year. Typically anemic Boston College exposed Louisville’s defense last week, but Florida State’s offense might be even worse without quarterback Deondre Francois.