AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Conference play begins nationwide in week 4, and for the first time in several years, the most intriguing league to watch might not be anywhere near either coast.
The toughest conference to call might be smack in the middle of the country. By the preseason future odds, the Big 12 was the most difficult of the power five conferences to forecast with five teams at 7-to-1 or less to win the conference.
Although two of those teams suffered upset losses in the opening three weeks — Kansas State and Texas — they have still shown enough to be considered capable of an upset against the conference powers. And the conference powers all look better than expected.
Odds on Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU to win the national championship have all decreased with the Cowboys taking a particularly steep dive from 20- to 10-to-1. Oklahoma State has outscored its first three opponents by a combined 110 teams and gained a national-best 8.7 yards per play, figures that edge out archrival Oklahoma’s plus-106 scoring margin and second-place 8.5 yards per play.
Oklahoma’s chances to win the conference may have decreased despite pulling off arguably the biggest win of the young season, a 31-16 victory at Ohio State as 7.5-point underdogs in Week 2.
Meanwhile, TCU looks more like its 2014 team that some still believe was wrongly left out of the College Football Playoff than last year’s mediocre 6-7 straight-up, 3-10 against the spread unit.
The Horned Frogs have outscored their three opponents by a combined 90 points, and hosts Oklahoma State in a premier matchup to open Big 12 play on Saturday. It could potentially be the first of two meetings this year.
For the first time, the Big 12 will host a conference championship game, a wrinkle that further complicates a league that should no longer be the most ignored of the major conferences.
Check below for the Sun’s preview and pick of Oklahoma State at TCU, along with the nine other biggest games and extra selections at the end. A rough 6-9 showing in Week 3 leaves the blog’s season record at 24-25. Lines are the best currently available on the chosen side in Vegas, with picks labeled in three separate confidence categories.
North Carolina State plus-13 at Florida State, over/under: 51.5; 9 a.m. on ABC
Either way this game goes, a built-in narrative will be deployed as an explanation.
If Florida State prevails in dominant fashion as the betting market expects, analysts will reference its preparation time and rest. If North Carolina State keeps it close or pulls the upset, the same people will describe Florida State as rusty.
The Seminoles will suit up for only the second time this season, following an opening-season 24-7 loss to Alabama as 7.5-point underdogs, after their last two games were canceled due to Hurricane Irma. And they’ll look much different than they did against the Crimson Tide.
True freshman James Blackman will make his first start at quarterback with Deondre Francois out for the season, leading NC State coach Dave Doeren to scour high school film. Blackman wasn’t heavily recruited, at least not by Florida State standards, but he attended renowned NFL factory Glades Central High School.
Bettors are undeterred by questions on the Seminoles’ side, as all the money has come in on the home team to push the spread up a point. The Wolfpack have yet to cover this season, falling short of inflated numbers against Furman and Marshall the last two weeks coming off of a Week 1 upset loss to South Carolina.
Lean: North Carolina State plus-13
Alabama minus-18.5 at Vanderbilt, over/under: 43; 12:30 p.m. on CBS
Vanderbilt’s 14-7 victory over Kansas State as 5-point underdogs last week may have confirmed it as a genuine giant killer.
The Commodores have now pulled outright upsets in four of their last 10 games. None of those victories, of course, would come close to comparing with knocking down Alabama at home for the first time since 1969. Vanderbilt’s 8 percent implied probability by the money line may not seem like much, but it’s at least twice as strong as its chances coming into the season.
The Commodores, not the Crimson Tide, surprisingly lead a number of SEC statistical categories. Vanderbilt has given up less than 5 points per game and 3.6 yards per play — as compared with Alabama’s 13 points and 4.6 yards per play — on defense.
On offense, Vanderbilt junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has thrown for 703 yards and eight touchdowns to no interceptions versus Alabama sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts going for 472 yards and four touchdowns to no interceptions.
Alabama’s schedule hasn’t been significantly tougher either, but it’s fair to assume it hasn’t pushed 100 percent in back-to-back wins but not covers against Fresno State and Colorado State. Vanderbilt’s start to the season now has Alabama’s attention, and with an overwhelming talent edge, that could be scary.
Guess: Alabama minus-18.5
USC minus-17 at California, over/under: 63.5; 12:30 p.m. on ABC
The storyline in the featured SEC afternoon game is eerily similar to the featured Pac-12 afternoon game, with the presumed league favorite going on the road to take on a surprise 3-0 foe.
California’s undefeated start is more unforeseen than Vanderbilt’s, though. The combined money lines on the Golden Bears’ first three games implied only a 6 percent chance they would start unbeaten.
Big money steamed Ole Miss up to a 7-point favorite before last week’s kickoff at California, but the home team stymied the Rebels 27-16 for a second upset in three weeks. New coach Justin Wilcox, who was USC’s defensive coordinator under current coach Clay Helton in 2015, has at least marginally repaired California’s defense.
The Golden Bears gave up only 5.1 yards per play combined to Ole Miss and North Carolina, which they upset 35-30 as 12-point underdogs in Week 1, as compared to 6.6 yards per play against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition last year. They’ve also kept up the prolific nature of their offense, with quarterback Ross Bowers having already thrown for 799 yards and running back Patrick Laird averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Those figures might look more impressive next to a team other than USC, where quarterback Sam Darnold has already surpassed 1,000 yards and running back Stephen Carr is going for 8 yards per carry.
Guess: Over 63.5 points
TCU plus-13.5 at Oklahoma State, over/under: 71.5; 12:30 p.m. on ESPN
Bookmakers are trying to channel Roger Daltrey when it comes to Oklahoma State: They won’t get fooled again.
With the Cowboys starting the season with three easy covers that paid off bettors in droves, casinos are getting aggressive in preemptively moving their lines. Oklahoma State was only a 3.5-point favorite in this conference opener before the season.
The 10-point spread swing is about the same adjustment that was made ahead of last week’s 59-21 win at Pittsburgh as 11-point favorites, but unlike the Panthers, the Horned Frogs have no reason to be downgraded. TCU is just 1-2 against the spread, but both losses were by a less than two points as big favorites — a 63-0 win over Jackson State as 64-point favorites and a 56-36 win against SMU as 21.5-point favorites.
The Horned Frogs were outstanding in their only competitive game, a 28-7 win at Arkansas as 3-point favorites, where its defense and deep receiving corps shined.
TCU has 17 players with at least one reception this season. With only 10 receivers that fit into that category, Oklahoma State replaces volume with efficiency.
Four Cowboys had more than 100 yards at Pittsburgh — Jalen McCleskey, James Washington, Marcell Aterman and Dillon Stoner.
Play: TCU plus-13.5
Mississippi State plus-4.5 at Georgia, over/under: 48.5; 4 p.m. on ESPN
Welcome back to future betting boards, Mississippi State.
After a transitional year from Dak Prescott to Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback last season where they went 6-7 straight-up and 5-8 against the spread, the Bulldogs are again a presence at sports books. They reintroduced themselves with one of the most surprising blowouts of the season, a 37-7 shellacking of LSU as 7.5-point underdogs last week.
The win made Mississippi State the biggest mover in odds to win the national championship at William Hill, where it went from 200- to 60-to-1. Likewise, Fitzgerald, who had 268 total yards and four touchdowns against LSU, trimmed from 50- to 20-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy.
Mississippi State’s defense was the real story, however, as it held LSU to 4.6 yards per play behind stifling performances from linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Mark McLaurin.
If they’re trying to figure out how to come back from one of the program’s biggest wins in recent years, Georgia should provide an example. A week after upsetting Notre Dame 20-19 as 5.5-point favorites on the road, Georgia didn’t fool around in blowing out overmatched Samford 42-14 as 33-point favorites last Saturday.
Samford only snuck in for a backdoor cover in the fourth quarter when Georgia was resting all of its starters in preparation for this game.
Guess: Georgia minus-4.5
San Diego State minus-3 at Air Force, over/under: 47; 4 p.m. on CBS Sports Network
Pros versus joes; sharps versus squares. Call it whatever you want, but this pivotal opening Mountain West Conference game seems to be pitting the professional gamblers against the recreational players.
Behind five straight years of winning against the spread records and two consecutive conference championships, San Diego State has slowly transformed into a team the betting public has enough confidence in to consistently back. The masses are certainly on board after arguably the Aztecs’ most impressive victory during their run, a 20-17 takedown of Stanford as 8.5-point underdogs last week.
Nearly three out of every four tickets are on San Diego State in its trip to Air Force, and yet the line has shot down three points. That’s a giveaway that the big bets are on the Falcons.
Not much was expected out of Air Force this season, as it was 20-to-1 to win the Mountain West as compared to San Diego State’s 8-to-5. But the Falcons have covered in both of their games, including hanging with Michigan in a 29-13 loss as 23-point underdogs last week.
Air Force seems to have improved a defense that was leaky the last two years — it’s given up 4.1 yards per play so far — while its triple-option continue to cruise on offense behind quarterback Arion Worthman and running back Timothy McVey.
San Diego State has the nation’s current leading rusher in senior Rashaad Penny, who’s racked up 588 yards, but hasn’t been as lockdown on defense as normal in giving up 5.7 yards per play.
Lean: Over 47 points
Penn State minus-13 at Iowa, over/under: 52.5; 4:30 p.m. on ABC
A few groans surely spread through sports books last Saturday when Iowa kneeled at the 2-yard line to finish off a 31-14 victory over North Texas instead of trying to score and, therefore, cover the minus-19 spread.
It was the second straight week where Iowa bettors suffered a tough-to-swallow loss. In Week 2, Iowa edged Iowa State 44-41 in overtime to fall a half-point short of covering.
Backing the Nittany Lions has gone smoother, as they’re yet to lose a game against the spread while winning their first three by an average of 42 points. They were all at home, however, and all against significantly weaker teams.
The trip to Kinnick Stadium should present Penn State’s first true test of the season. Iowa’s defense is consistently solid, while its offense seems to have more punch than expected this season.
Sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley is just outside the nation’s top 20 in passing efficiency with 10 touchdowns to one interception and 7.9 yards per attempt. Senior running back Akrum Wadley is expected back from an injury that sidelined him early against North Texas.
That pair may not equal Penn State’s respective duo of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, but they’ll both have to strengthen their early Heisman Trophy résumés by keeping up their production on the road for the first time.
Guess: Iowa plus-13
Notre Dame minus-3.5 at Michigan State, over/under: 54; 5 p.m. on Fox
It’s the Bounce Back Bowl, as a rival pair of college football’s better programs look to continue on the comeback trail after missing bowl eligibility a year ago and going 4-8 against the spread apiece.
One of these two will take a major step back on that mission, despite promising early returns. Michigan State has covered easily in each of its first two games, a 35-10 win over Bowling Green as 17.5-point favorites and a 28-14 victory over Western Michigan as 7-point favorites.
Although Notre Dame fell to Georgia 20-19 as 5-point favorites in Week 2, it blew out Boston College and Temple in its other two contests. Losing to the Bulldogs in what amounted to a coin flip game can be forgiven; a 2-2 start is more unlikely to be pardoned.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says his offense isn’t run-first, but the Fighting Irish’s approach has so far conflicted with that report. Junior Brandon Wimbush became the first quarterback in school history to rush for 200 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College last week.
And he’s not even the team’s leading rusher, as junior Josh Adams is averaging 8 yards per carry. Michigan State doesn’t hide the fact that it wants to focus on the ground game.
The Spartans have kept the ball on the ground on 61 percent of plays, as opposed to Irish’s 56 percent, with junior three-year starter L.J. Scott the focal point of the offense.
Lean: Notre Dame minus-3.5
Washington minus-12 at Colorado, over/under: 50; 7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1
The Buffaloes and Huskies won their respective divisions last year to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game, making for one of the more improbable conference title matchups in recent history.
They were both goldmines early in the year at sports books, with Washington going 4-2 against the spread in the first half of the season and Colorado covering eight straight before bettors caught on and the market adjusted. Neither the Buffaloes nor the Huskies are sneaking up on anyone this year, oddsmakers included.
Both teams have started the season 3-0 straight-up but 1-2 against the spread with average lines of minus-30 per game. Washington would have covered that number in last year’s Pac-12 Championship, beating Colorado 41-10 as 8.5-point favorites.
The Buffaloes had to turn to then-backup Stephen Montez at quarterback in the game, and he couldn’t spark a passing game that struggled throughout the night. Colorado threw for only 81 yards on 25 attempts as a team.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning didn’t solve the Colorado defense much better, going 9-for-24 for 118 yards but two touchdowns.
Montez and Browning have both looked improved early this season, and they might have it easier against rebuilt secondaries from each other's teams. The total doesn’t imply as much, as it’s six points lower than the over/under 56 from last year’s championship game.
Guess: Colorado plus-12
UCLA plus-7 at Stanford, over/under: 57; 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Both these teams are mired in unsatisfactory starts to the season because their spectacular offensive displays haven’t done enough to make up for struggling defensive performances.
For the Bruins, that was to be expected. It’s shocking, however, for the Cardinal.
Defense has guided Stanford over the last couple years, but it has given up an alarming 6.4 yards per play in back-to-back losses to USC and San Diego State. UCLA has been even worse, ceding 7.1 yards per play in last week’s 48-45 loss as 3-point favorites at Memphis.
The inability to stop anyone has canceled out much of junior quarterback Josh Rosen’s national-leading 1,283 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. Stanford’s passing game hasn’t clicked, but junior Bryce Love might be the best running back in the country.
He’s second nationally with 524 yards, but averaging an unbelievable 12.2 yards per carry on 43 attempts. Together, five of the two teams’ six games have flown over the total.
Bettors are signaling a belief that their defenses will come together. Although there hasn’t been much movement on the point spread, the total has come down a touchdown after opening as high as 63.5 points.
Play: Stanford minus-7
Michigan minus-10 at Purdue Boilermakers have become overvalued by covering three straight to open the season, as a spread of anything less than two touchdowns here would have been considered an answered prayer coming into the season. They don’t have the athletes to keep up with the Wolverines.
Florida Atlantic plus-3 at Buffalo Owls’ two blowout losses came to teams with far more talent than them in Navy and Wisconsin. Buffalo doesn’t fit the same bill.
North Carolina plus-2.5 vs. Duke Always prefer to look towards the home underdog in a rivalry game, particularly one where it’s debatable if they should even be taking points. The Tar Heels have improved every week, and are at the very least evenly matched with their archrivals.
South Carolina minus-9 vs. Louisiana Tech Sharp money has pushed this spread down below 10, which puts the value squarely on the Gamecocks. Failing to see the fascination with the Bulldogs, which are struggling on defense and still breaking in plenty of new personnel on offense.