AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The most prevalent topic of conversation around football betting circles last weekend was the way NFL underdogs covered in bulk to clobber the betting public.
It’s not as if college football served the favorite-leaning masses well either. College football busted plenty of bankrolls on its own and boosted casinos’ bottom lines in week 4.
The best teams typically draw the most action, and in top 10 games last Saturday, the favorite went 3-6 against the spread. There were also nearly outright upsets at every point of the day.
North Carolina State kicked off the underdog rally by traveling to Florida State in the morning slate of games for a 27-21 victory as closing 12-point underdogs. Right as the Wolfpack were putting their finishing touches on the upset, TCU was starting its own that was even more beneficial for sports books.
The Horned Frogs downed Oklahoma State 44-31 as 10-point underdogs.
Iowa nearly made it a trifecta of toppled giants at night, but Penn State scored on the game’s final play to eke out a 21-19 victory as 13-point favorites.
Bookmakers did a lot of complaining last year while experiencing one of the worst seasons in years for the house. The early results this year would indicate they’re more than making up for it.
That can’t stand, as Talking Points wants to help beat the bookies.
Read below for week 5 of college football by the odds. Saturday’s 10 biggest games are previewed and picked with three different confidence categories, and additional plays are provided at the end. After a 9-4-1 against the spread record last week, the season mark stands at 33-29-1.
Northwestern plus-14.5 at Wisconsin, over/under: 49; 9 a.m. on ABC
Wisconsin and Northwestern came into the season as the two favorites to win the Big Ten West, and through a month, they’re still power-rated as the top two teams.
That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed. The Badgers have widened their hold on a division its won twice in the last three years, while the Wildcats have taken a step back to more of a bunch with other rivals.
Both teams came into the season with hope that returning most of their offensive production would yield improvement. It’s only worked for Wisconsin so far.
The Badgers may have found a gem in freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who’s averaging 8.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook also appears to have taken a step forward by completing 70 percent of his passes for 10 yards per attempt.
Wisconsin has blown out all three of its opponents, with the lone non-cover coming in a 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic where the Badgers racked up an advantage of more than 300 yards.
Northwestern, meanwhile, notched its first spread win last week in beating Bowling Green 49-7 as 21-point favorites. The Wildcats disappointed in a 41-17 loss to Duke as 2-point favorites and a 31-20 win over Nevada as 24-point favorites.
Senior running back Justin Jackson is close to setting the school record for rushing yards, but hasn’t found many lanes early in the season with a pedestrian 4.5 yards per carry. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson likewise has thrown for only four touchdowns to three interceptions despite facing a mediocre schedule so far.
Guess: Wisconsin minus-14.5
Vanderbilt plus-10 at Florida, over/under: 41.5; 9 a.m. on ESPN
It’s back to obscurity for the Commodores.
That’s how the betting market responded to Vanderbilt’s humiliating 59-0 loss to Alabama as 19-point underdogs last week anyway. The Commodores are once again practically invisible on betting boards.
All of the action on this game has come on the Gators, which grew to a 10-point favorite after opening at minus-7.5. Florida pulled off its second late comeback in as many weeks to beat Kentucky 28-27 last Saturday but didn’t cover the 3-point spread.
The Gators have now won 31 straight against Kentucky. They’ve only taken down the Commodores in 25 of the last 26 years.
Florida will turn to last year’s part-time starting quarterback junior Luke Del Rio after he relieved freshman Feleipe Franks against Kentucky. He’ll be up against a Vanderbilt defense with decent overall numbers, despite giving up 677 yards to Alabama last week.
Led by senior linebackers Emmanuel Smith and Oren Burks, Vanderbilt has given up a respectable 4.9 yards per play on the year even including the Alabama bludgeoning. That’s much better than Florida, which has labored to allow opponents to gain 5.9 yards per play.
Lean: Vanderbilt plus-10
Georgia minus-8 at Tennessee, over/under: 47; 12:30 p.m. on CBS
The first sight of Mortal Kombat rules prevailing to a large degree in the college football betting market this year comes in the SEC.
It started with LSU, which had become the most popular bet in the conference behind Alabama and swelled to a 7.5-point favorite over Mississippi State before losing 37-7. The Bulldogs then inherited the Tigers’ power to draw money, as they attracted so much action that they went from plus-7 to plus-2.5 before kickoff at Georgia last week.
After Georgia throttled Mississippi State 31-3, it’s the current Supreme Being. Georgia went from a 1-point underdog at Tennessee over the summer to more than a touchdown favorite from betting activity spurred by excitement from their performance over Mississippi State.
The cycle may end if Tennessee pulls off an upset over Georgia, because it may be too late for anything to convince bettors to back the Volunteers. Tennessee’s only cover this season was by a half-point in its 26-20 Hail Mary loss to Florida.
By coach Butch Jones’ own admission, the Volunteers seemed to suffer from a hangover out of that loss last week. They had to hold on dearly just to beat Massachusetts 17-13 as 28-point favorites last week.
Georgia is yet to fail to cover behind a devastating defense that’s giving up 3.9 yards per play with All-American candidates at linebacker in Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter.
Play: Tennessee plus-8
Indiana plus-17.5 at Penn State, over/under: 66; 12:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network
Penn State coach James Franklin’s most circulated quote after his team’s 21-19 escape at Iowa as 13-point favorites was that, “there’s always one game like that where you have to gut it out and find a way to win.”
With the way bettors are backing the Nittany Lions, they better hope there’s only one game like that. Penn State has become such a popular wager that its average spread for the rest of the year should be around the 17.5 points they’re laying against Indiana on Saturday.
It projects as a slight underdog at Ohio State next month, but will otherwise give points in every game. The win at Iowa broke a nine-game covering streak that led Penn State to the Big Ten Conference Championship last year.
By all other accounts, however, the Nittany Lions are better this year. They’re gaining 7.4 yards per play and giving up only 4 yards per play as opposed to posting averages of 6.4 and 4.8 last year, respectively.
Junior running back Saquon Barkley is suddenly the Heisman favorite at 3-to-1 odds at William Hill after gaining more than 300 yards against the Hawkeyes. Indiana could pose a new challenge, as it relies on an experienced defense that’s particularly strong in the secondary.
Guess: Penn State minus-17.5
Iowa plus-3 at Michigan State, over/under: 44.5; 1 p.m. on Fox
Less than two years ago, Michigan State picked up one of the biggest wins in school history when it defeated Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Spartans have won only one conference game since, going 6-10 straight-up and 5-11 against the spread overall. Bettors have unsurprisingly turned their backs as this is the third straight game where the majority of tickets have come in against the Spartans.
They didn’t inspire much confidence with last week’s 38-18 loss at home to Notre Dame as 3-point underdogs, despite gaining just short of 500 yards. Turnovers fated Michigan State’s fall, as it now has a minus-6 margin on the year including two fumbles lost inside the five-yard line by veteran running back L.J. Scott.
Iowa, conversely, couldn’t use a plus-1 turnover differential to upset Penn State last week. The Hawkeyes have been among the nation’s best in turnover margin over the last two years, which is not sustainable over the long term.
The takeaway prowess of players like linebacker Parker Hesse, who has two forced fumbles and an interception already this season, and defensive back Joshua Jackson, two interceptions, also hasn’t translated to betting success. Since the push in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State, Iowa is only 8-10 against the spread including 2-2 this year.
Lean: Michigan State minus-3
Mississippi State plus-9 at Auburn, over/under: 52.5; 3 p.m. on ESPN
Anyone who handicaps this game based on last week’s results risks being severely misled.
Auburn’s 51-14 win at Missouri as 18-point favorites made it look like a scoring powerhouse, while Mississippi State came off as offensively inept in a 31-3 loss at Georgia as 2.5-point underdogs. In reality, Mississippi State holds an offensive edge in this game almost as significant as Auburn’s defensive advantage.
Bulldogs junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was regarded as a fringe Heisman contender before completing only 14 of 29 passes for 83 yards against Georgia. One bad outing doesn’t erase the fact that he’s led Mississippi State to 6.1 yards per play on offense this year, significantly better than Auburn’s 5.5 yards per play.
On the other hand, Auburn can stake a legitimate claim to having one of the nation’s best defenses considering it has surrendered only 3.6 yards per play on the year. Junior running back Kerryon Johnson scored five touchdowns last week and last year’s leading rusher, junior Kamryn Pettway, is expected to return from injury this week, but Auburn’s real stars are on defense.
Cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Tray Matthews form one of the best secondaries in the country for the Tigers, and should test Fitzgerald as much as Georgia did last week.
Guess: Auburn minus-9
Clemson minus-7.5 at Virginia Tech, over/under: 51.5; 5 p.m. on ABC
One streak ended last week; Clemson must safeguard against losing two more important ones this week.
The Tigers' trip to take on the Hokies is the biggest test left on the schedule, according to the odds, to maintain their school-record 11 consecutive road wins and nine straight overall victories. Clemson is currently a 9.5-point favorite in its other two toughest remaining contests — hosting Florida State and traveling to NC State — in game of the year lines at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.
The Tigers’ extremely bountiful run of five straight covers dating back to last year’s College Football Playoff ended last week with a slow-starting 34-7 victory over Boston College as 33-point favorites. The last team that halted Clemson from cashing was Virginia Tech, when the Hokies narrowly failed to pull off the upset as 10-point underdogs in a 42-35 loss in the ACC Championship Game last year.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente says he hasn’t mentioned that setback to his team partly because the Hokies’ core has greatly changed, most notably with freshman quarterback Josh Jackson — 11 touchdowns to one interception — now directing the offense.
The betting market hasn’t lost any faith in Clemson despite the circumstances, as the line has climbed a point from opening at minus-6.5.
Guess: Virginia Tech plus-7.5
Oklahoma State minus-9.5 at Texas Tech, over/under: 85.5; 5 p.m. on Fox
A college football sight as rare as UNLV making a bowl game or Alabama missing the College Football Playoff might be happening in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech might actually have a defense.
The Red Raiders upset Houston 27-24 as touchdown underdogs last week behind what felt like their first defensively proficient performance in a century. Edge rushers Dakota Allen and Tony Jones particularly wreaked havoc on the Cougars.
After ranking dead-last nationally in giving up 7.3 yards per play last season, Texas Tech has allowed only 5.1 yards per play through three games this season. The Red Raiders haven’t finished a season with a number that respectable since Mike Leach was still their coach.
Oddsmakers might not be buying the turnaround as the total on this game is still comfortably the highest on the board in week 5, but sharp bettors appear at least somewhat intrigued by the improvement. The largest line movement of the week has gone in Texas Tech’s direction, with the spread opening Oklahoma State minus-13.5 on Sunday.
Some of the shine came off of Oklahoma State with last week’s 44-31 loss to TCU as 9-point favorites, but senior quarterback Mason Rudolph remains second in the nation with 1,533 passing yards.
Texas Tech senior quarterback Nic Shimonek ranks 13th with 1,248 yards, despite having played one less game.
Guess: Oklahoma State minus-9.5
Ole Miss plus-28 at Alabama, over/under: 59; 6 p.m. on ESPN
It’s almost as if Ole Miss carries a cheat code not accessible to the rest of the SEC when it comes to competing with Alabama.
Not only have the Rebels handed the Crimson Tide their last two conference losses, but they’re also the only SEC team to cover in each of the last three years against Alabama. Of course, add up the point spreads of the last three years and the combined total still falls four points short of this year’s line.
That’s what happens when one scandal hasn’t even finished rocking the program — the ol’ “lack of institutional control”, which resulted in scholarship restrictions and a postseason ban this year — when another — former coach Hugh Freeze’s outgoing escort calls, which cost him his job — hits in the offseason. The effects have shown on the field, where the Rebels have yet to cover this season including an outright loss to California as 7-point favorites in their last game.
They do, however, still have some of the characteristics that spelled success against the Crimson Tide in the past. Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, who’s thrown for 10.5 yards per attempt this season, is the latest in a line of vertically-inclined passers at Ole Miss.
His favorite target, sophomore A.J. Brown, leads the SEC with 130 receiving yards per game. Ole Miss is built better to hang with Alabama than Vanderbilt, last week’s victims of a 59-0 devastation, despite a line that’s nine points higher.
Lean: Ole Miss plus-28
California plus-13.5 at Oregon, over/under: 68; 7:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1
“Very impressed,” was how USC coach Clay Helton described California after his team’s hard-fought 30-20 victory over the Golden Bears as 16.5-point favorites last week.
The betting public must have come away with the same sentiment because it’s loading up on California as a big underdog this week. The Golden Bears opened as high as a 16-point underdog against the Ducks but have steadily trended downwards.
Don’t look towards this game to disprove the notion that the majority of bettors wager too strongly based on what they saw last.
Oregon has fallen out of gamblers’ good graces in short order after losing 37-35 as 14.5-point favorites at Arizona State last week. The Ducks really didn’t play that poorly, though.
The game was evenly matched with Oregon actually gaining nearly a yard per play more than Arizona State, but wilting in high-leverage situations. It went just 1-for-13 on third- and fourth-down conversions.
Both defenses may still have issues, but there can’t be many complaints about the way the offenses are producing so far. California rolls behind junior running back Patrick Laird, who’s averaging 7 yards per carry, while Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert is throwing for 10 yards per attempt.
Lean: Oregon minus-13.5
Bowling Green plus-3 vs. Akron Akron’s 21-17 loss at Troy last week wasn’t as close as the score indicates, and doesn’t change the fact that the Zips are one of the worst teams in the country. They shouldn’t be laying points on the road to anyone, let alone in a stadium where they’ve been a two-touchdown underdog in their last three trips.
Massachusetts plus-7 vs. Ohio Here’s another ugly MAC home underdog being treated too harshly by the line. The winless Minutemen have showed great improvement in covers against Tennessee and Temple the last two weeks, but their power rating hasn’t adjusted.
Florida State minus-7.5 at Wake Forest This might be the only chance to buy low on the Seminoles, which still have as much talent as any team in the country. They didn’t play badly in last week’s 27-21 loss to North Carolina State, a team that’s much better than its perception.
San Jose State plus-14 at UNLV This is a big overreaction to San Jose State’s 61-10 loss to Utah State last week where everything went against the Spartans. UNLV hasn’t given this many points in a Mountain West Conference game since 2004 — a loss 31-21 loss to Utah State, by the way.
Memphis plus-4 at Central Florida UCF swung to a favorite after blowing out Florida International and Maryland, but Memphis might be better than both those teams combined. The Tigers’ offense will be the first test the Knights’ defense has seen all year.