College Football: Big Ten Betting Preview
As the college football season inches closer, the opportunity arises to bet on conference futures.
Starting with the Big Ten, we will be analyzing each of the power five conferences for the best value for conference title bets. The Big Ten is stacked with five teams that rank in the top 15 teams in the AP poll – four of those teams in one division. Below are betting odds to win the Big Ten from Bovada (as of 8/21/2018).
The Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers are the obvious favorites after playing each other in the Big Ten Championship game last season, but in a loaded conference, their odds aren't worth the risk. Bettors have to look deeper in the Big Ten to find value, starting with an often overlooked team from the East Division.
Best Value: Michigan State Spartans +800
The Michigan State Spartans slightly overachieved last season, according to second-order wins (9.4) from Football Outsiders, which might signal negative regression. However, with 19 returning starters, the Spartans are poised to build on their 10-3 record from last fall.
The Spartans had the 4th-best defense in the country last year per S&P+, but only the 92nd-best offense. The Spartans struggled when running the ball, averaging only 4.0 yards per rush. Michigan State ranked 15th in total third downs per game, and even though they converted 45% of the time in those situations, they put themselves in more difficult positions by not running the ball as effectively. The Spartans return Third Team All-Big Ten running back L.J. Scott and four of five offensive linemen, two of whom were only freshmen last year. The experience for MSU could lead to an improvement in the running game.
Brian Lewerke returns to lead the passing attack as starting quarterback this season after achieving a 77.7 QBR (per ESPN), good for 15th in the country. He is a dual threat, averaging 7.1 yards per rush, which gives the Spartans an extra weapon that defenses must plan for. Besides Penn State’s Trace McSorley, Lewerke is arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten and gives the Spartans an edge on an offense that should improve this season.
The Spartans play rivals Michigan and Ohio State in East Lansing and have only one truly "difficult" game (defined as a game with under 40% win probability, according to ESPN's FPI) -- when they travel to Penn State. Michigan State ranks 11th in The Power Rank’s predictive rankings , 3rd in the Big Ten and have the 5th-best betting odds. They have the defense to compete with anyone in the conference, and if they manage to pull the slight upset on Ohio State at home, they would be in the driver's seat in the East Division and have a leg up in advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Long Shot Value: Iowa Hawkeyes +2800
Like Michigan State, the Iowa Hawkeyes relied on their defense to an 8-5 record last season. The Hawkeyes finished 4-5 in the Big Ten despite having a +60 point differential, which suggests that they’ll be benefactors of positive regression. In addition, Iowa ranks 19th in The Power Rank’s predictive rankings and 24th in ESPN’s FPI, signifying they’ve been potentially overlooked by the preseason AP poll.
Iowa’s strength was their D, where they ranked 15th in the country according to S&P+. They lost first team All-American defensive back Joshua Jackson to the NFL, but they return their other three starters in the secondary. Per Football Outsiders, Iowa’s defensive line ranked fifth in power success rate, a measure of defensive success against runs on third and fourth downs of two yards or less to go, and three of four of their defensive linemen return this season. Given their defensive line prowess and their propensity to force turnovers (2.0 per game last season), Iowa's defense will likely be a strength again this season.
Wisconsin and Iowa are the class of the West Division in the Big Ten; the next West team ranked in The Power Rank's ratings is Northwestern at 32. If Iowa can manage to upset the Badgers at home, they have only one more game in which they have under 40% probability of winning: on the road against Penn State. Beating the Badgers would likely give them a bid to the Big Ten Championship Game if they can run the table against the weaker opponents on the remainder of their schedule.
Avoid: Michigan Wolverines +450
The Michigan Wolverines have a loaded roster with future NFL talent, like defensive lineman Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush, and return nine starters from the 10th-ranked defense, according to S&P+ last season. They’ve even improved on their biggest weakness from a year ago by adding Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, who posted a 58.8 QBR in seven games last season. In comparison, incumbent Wolverine starter Brandon Peters had only a 35.4 QBR. The Wolverines will likely be improved this year with experience and a transfer quarterback, but they face one of the more difficult schedules in the country.
According to ESPN’s playoff predictor, Michigan has an 8% probability to qualify for the college football playoff, placing them as the fifth-most likely Big Ten team to qualify behind Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. At 15% likelihood, Michigan State is almost twice as likely to make the playoff as the Wolverines are, but they have almost twice the payout as the Wolverines do on a bet to win the Big Ten. Michigan has a win probability of fewer than 40% in three games this season, according to ESPN’s FPI -- at Notre Dame, at Michigan State, and at Ohio State.
As high of a ceiling as the Wolverines have on defense, they also have a low floor due to a brutal schedule, which takes away any potential Big Ten betting value. Bettors should avoid Michigan as a Big Ten champion bet and even look for opportunities to bet against them in difficult road games, such as when they travel to South Bend as one-point favorites to play Notre Dame on September 1.