AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Fourteen teams enter the college football season offered at odds of 30-to-1 or less to win the national championship at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.
If history serves, those are the teams to watch in regards to the 2017-18 College Football Playoff. In the three seasons since the playoff format was implemented, no team has overcome a higher price to reach the four-team field.
And the two playoff teams that did enter the season at 30-to-1 — Washington last year and Oklahoma two years ago — squeaked in as the No. 4 seed and lost in the semifinals. The longest shot playoff champion to this point was no long shot at all, as 2014-15 Ohio State prevailed after opening the season at 10-to-1.
Four seasons ago when Florida State and Auburn made surprise runs to the championship game at preseason prices of 25-to-1 and 200-to-1, respectively, feels like a different era. In fact, it was a different era as the Seminoles and Tigers met in the final BCS National Championship Game, but the switch to the College Football Playoff was supposed to open title aspirations to more teams.
So far, it’s done the opposite. That’s good news for the following 14 favorites: Alabama at 5-to-2, Ohio State at 3-to-1, USC at 7-to-1 Florida State at 8-to-1, Michigan at 15-to-1, Oklahoma at 18-to-1, Wisconsin at 20-to-1, LSU at 20-to-1, Penn State at 20-to-1, Washington at 20-to-1, Notre Dame at 25-to-1, Oklahoma State at 25-to-1, Auburn at 25-to-1 and Georgia at 25-to-1.
It will be interesting to follow if the 2017 season continues to play out close to form.
In the meantime, let’s pick some winners. Click through below for our weekly betting preview of the 10 biggest games with extra picks on other contests at the end. Picks are labeled with three confidence levels — plays, leans and guesses. Talking Points has gone 1-3 so far this season coming off of a 116-109-8 showing last year.
Wyoming plus-12 at Iowa, over/under: 50; 9 a.m. Saturday on Big Ten Network
Draftniks hold little sway over sports bettors if Wyoming is a valid case study.
Talent evaluators are hailing Cowboys junior quarterback Josh Allen, who accounted for nearly 4,000 yards last year, as the potential top overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. But gamblers are betting against Allen in his opener, instead taking Iowa, a team that didn’t announce its starting quarterback until Thursday.
Sophomore Nate Stanley will step in for the Hawkeyes, which have emerged as a much bigger player over the last two seasons between a Big Ten Championship Game berth in 2015 and a memorable upset over Michigan in 2016. They’ve stayed mediocre from a betting perspective, however, with a 14-13 against the spread record the last two years including going 4-8 as a home favorite.
That hasn’t stopped as much as three-fourths of the tickets on the premier game of Saturday morning’s slate coming in on Iowa.
Lean: Wyoming plus-12
South Carolina plus-5.5 vs. North Carolina State in Charlotte, over/under: 52.5; Noon Saturday on ESPN
For those looking for sleeper teams to back throughout the season in what project to be college football’s two best conferences, this pairing isn’t a bad place to start.
South Carolina overachieved in coach Will Muschamp’s first season, beating a win total of 4.5 by 1.5 games, behind a young core that’s almost entirely returning. Now-sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley is almost alone for the Gamecocks to compete in a weak SEC East division.
North Carolina State’s division, the ACC Atlantic, looks much tougher but it returns its top four receivers to go with now-senior quarterback Ryan Finley.
These teams might even be more primed for success on the defensive end. North Carolina State’s front seven, starring linebacker Bradley Chubb and defensive tackle Justin Jones, could emerge as one of the best in the nation.
South Carolina gets back former leading tackler Skai Moore, who missed all of last season with an injury. This neutral-site showdown could put in a surprise bid for most exciting game of Saturday if these teams are as evenly matched as some metrics lead to believe.
In Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings, North Carolina State comes into the season ranked No. 31 with South Carolina at No. 32.
Guess: South Carolina plus-5.5
Michigan minus-5.5 vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, over/under: 44; 12: 30 p.m. Saturday on ABC
The first marquee game of the year will challenge bookmakers and handicappers alike on how to best account for player absences.
Ten Florida players are suspended for the opener after getting caught running a debit card scam that involved selling electronics. The line spiked as much two points in Michigan’s direction after two more players were implicated this week, including last year’s leading rusher Jordan Scarlett.
Playing without Scarlett and leading receiver Antonio Callaway will put more pressure on freshman quarterback Feliepe Franks, whom Florida fans are convinced is a future Heisman contender.
Michigan is missing a lot of players too — just not from rules violations. Nearly the Wolverines’ entire team either graduated or left early for the NFL Draft, leaving them with arguably the most inexperienced roster in the nation.
They should have a returning starting quarterback in junior Wilton Speight, though coach Jim Harbaugh has refused to announce as much officially while citing Florida’s reluctance to divulge personnel as a reason for his silence.
It’s always hard to adjust the right amount for things like injuries and suspensions, but more often that not, drastic shifts on the point spread are unnecessary.
Play: Florida plus-5.5
Troy plus-10 at Boise State, over/under: 63; 12:45 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU
For the third straight year, Boise State is favored to win the Mountain West Conference. That status hasn’t served the Broncos well the last two years.
They’ve failed to even reach the Mountain West Conference Championship Game in each campaign, succumbing to six total upsets. Troy surprisingly came much closer to a conference title last year, as it led the Sun Belt going into the final week before an upset 28-24 loss to Georgia Southern as 7-point favorites.
The Trojans return everyone, including breakout junior quarterback Brandon Silvers, but must prove last season wasn’t an anomaly. The 10-3 straight-up, 8-5 against the spread campaign was their first winning season in six years.
Troy would like to reach the hallowed mid-major standing of a program like Boise State, which has gotten there by securing 19 winning seasons in a row.
The Broncos have a fraction of returning production compared to the Trojans, but their roster tends to replenish.
Lean: Boise State minus-10
Western Michigan plus-27.5 at Southern California, over/under: 58; 2:15 p.m. Saturday on Pac-12 Network
Las Vegas’ first major professional sports team will begin play later this year. Another has announced it’s on the way in a few years.
And yet the USC Trojans appear to stand out as the city’s most popular team in 2017. USC has drawn more action than any team to win the national championship at William Hill sports books with 10 percent of the tickets at odds of plus-750.
The Trojans’ quarterback, Sam Darnold, has also drawn the highest number of Heisman Trophy bets with 13 percent of the total handle at plus-250. It’s a lot of betting love for a team that hadn’t been profitable against the spread in five years before posting an 8-5 record versus the number last year.
Accumulating nine out of every 10 tickets and being thrown on virtually every parlay may sound unsurprising for a Week 1 nonconference game, but USC will be in the same situation several times throughout the year at this rate. Western Michigan is surely outmatched, but it might be in the Broncos’ benefit for this game that they’re trying to implement a more run-heavy offense behind backs Jarvion Franklin, LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan.
Their only chance of hanging close will be to sustain drives and chew up the clock.
Guess: Western Michigan plus-27.5
Florida State plus-7 vs. Alabama in Atlanta, over/under: 49.5; 5 p.m. Saturday on ABC
Alabama hasn’t dropped consecutive games against the spread in almost exactly two years. Plenty of bettors are counting on that streak to end at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
A majority of tickets at William Hill, albeit only 51 percent, are on Florida State as the line has shaved off the half-point hook after sitting at 7.5 earlier this month. In fairness, the Seminoles have been nearly as reliable as the Crimson Tide on the point spread.
They’re 50-43-1 against the spread under coach Jimbo Fisher, as opposed to Nick Saban’s 76-59-2 at Alabama. Florida State might be the only team in the nation with a more highly recruited defense than Alabama, as safety Derwin James returns from injury to form a secondary comprised entirely of NFL Draft prospects.
But the Seminoles’ biggest weakness during last year’s 10-3 straight-up, 8-5 against the spread campaign was going up against dual threat quarterbacks. They’ve surely worked on it all offseason, but Alabama’s Jalen Hurts will put that to the test.
Hurts rushed for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns last year in addition to throwing for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Lean: Alabama minus-7
BYU plus-15 at LSU in New Orleans, over/under: 47; 6:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN
BYU hasn’t come into a game as this large of an underdog since early in the 2015 season when it took 16 points against UCLA and lost only 24-23.
Almost every one of the Cougars’ losses last year were that close, as their four defeats came by a total of eight points. They were 4-0 against the spread as underdogs in coach Kalani Sitake’s first season, and figured to attract at least a decent cut of the action in Saturday’s game.
Then two things happened within the last week. First, BYU was unimpressive in a 20-6 victory over Portland State as 35-point favorites. Then, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and forced this game to be moved from NRG Stadium to the Superdome, or more than 200 miles closer to LSU’s campus.
The point spread moved as much as 2.5 points in LSU’s direction based on those factors.
The Cougars likely weren’t showing their full arsenal against the Vikings, which downplays the significance of the final score. And the crowd was going to be pro-LSU anyway, so BYU may not deserve a downgrade from the venue change.
Play: BYU plus-15
West Virginia plus-4 vs. Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., over/under: 51.5; 4:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC
Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente might be one of the best coaches to bet on in college football; West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen might be one of the worst.
Fuente went 8-6 against the spread in his debut season with the Hokies, prolonging a five-year streak of never posting a losing betting record. Holgorsen went 5-8 with the Mountaineers, the fifth time out of a total of six seasons he’s posted a losing betting record.
It can be a mistake to hinge too much handicapping on the coaching, but it might be necessary here with both rosters experiencing so much turnover. Virginia Tech and West Virginia each lost more than half of their starters.
Heck, even the series feels new. The Hokies and Mountaineers are renewing a once annual rivalry for the first time in 12 years.
Virginia Tech won and covered in the final two meetings, and its program still looks to be in a better place than West Virginia’s after winning an ACC Coastal division title in Fuente’s first year.
Play: Virginia Tech minus-4
Texas A&M plus-3.5 vs. UCLA, over/under: 56.5; 4:30 p.m. Sunday on Fox
The losing school’s administration might leave its coach at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA’s Jim Mora and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin come into the season at the top of betting odds to become the first coach fired. Mora is offered at the lowest odds of 9-to-1 offshore — such wagers are not permitted in Nevada — with Sumlin tied for sixth at 18-to-1. Both find themselves in ominous positions coming off of disappointing seasons a year ago.
Some give UCLA a pass on its 4-8 straight-up and against the spread 2016 campaign because of an injury to star quarterback Josh Rosen, but it was just 3-3 straight-up and 1-5 against the spread even when he played. Included in those losses was a memorable season-opening 31-24 overtime setback at Texas A&M, which went on to win its next five games before crumbling.
The Aggies went 2-5 straight-up and 0-7 against the spread over the second half of the season. It was the third straight year where Sumlin’s team faded after a promising start.
They’ll break in a freshman quarterback in Nick Starkel in Los Angeles, but he’ll have an advantage in junior receiver Chrstian Kirk, one of the nation’s top receivers.
Guess: UCLA minus-3.5
Tennessee minus-3 at Georgia Tech, over/under: 56; 5 p.m. Monday on ESPN
Fear not, those who are concerned with getting through one more college football game on Labor Day after four straight days of action.
This one should be short. Clock stoppages figure to come at a premium as the evenly matched Yellow Jackets and Volunteers both want to keep the ball on the ground.
With its triple-option attack, Georgia Tech ranked fifth in the nation last year in running the ball on 77 percent of its downs against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition. Tennessee was also above the national average at 57 percent, and that was with now-departed veteran quarterback Josh Dobbs behind center.
The Volunteers are expected to go more run-heavy this season behind junior back John Kelly, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season. The Yellow Jackets also planned to return a star running back in Dedrick Mills, but he was dismissed from the team during the preseason.
Coach Paul Johnson said he still had full confidence in several other rushers, but the line has crept away from his team after Mills’ departure.
The only things threatening the length of this game are the defenses. As strong as both teams are running the ball, they struggle to stop the run.
Tennessee gave up more than 5 yards per rushing attempt last year, while Georgia Tech allowed 4.8. Both teams return four starters along their front seven.
Guess: Over 56 points
California plus-12.5 at North Carolina The Tar Heels have even fewer returners and just as many questions as the Golden Bears, which aren’t two touchdowns worse even if they have to travel nearly 3,000 miles. California might be the least scrutinized power-conference team, which makes for a perfect bet-on.
Vanderbilt minus-3 at Middle Tennessee State Money has come in on the Blue Raiders to push the line down 2.5 points, putting the value squarely on the Commodores. Vanderbilt has beaten Middle Tennessee in consecutive seasons, and brings back nearly twice as much production as the crosstown rivals this year.
Bowling Green plus-17.5 at Michigan State Mired in offseason controversy and faced with breaking in a whole new core of players, a turnaround isn’t imminent for Michigan State following its disastrous 3-9 straight-up and 4-8 against the spread season. A change of fortunes might be coming for Bowling Green, which was better than last year’s 4-8 straight-up and against the spread records.
Coastal Carolina plus-2.5 vs. Massachusetts Wrong team might be favored, as the Chanticleers built towards this FBS debut by dominating in Football Championship Subdivision the last few years. This home game means far more to them than it does to the Minutemen.