College Football: SEC Betting Preview
College football season is on the horizon, with Week 1 kicking off on Thursday. We've already covered the best bets to win the Big Ten and Big 12, and we continue with the loaded SEC. The SEC has five teams ranked in the AP poll, as well as multiple legitimate title contenders. Below are betting odds for each team to win the conference championship, courtesy of Bovada (as of 8/27/2018).
The Alabama Crimson Tide are heavy favorites once again, after winning their fifth championship under Nick Saban. Despite their manageable schedule, Alabama doesn't have much value to win the conference since they're a favorite of the public, meaning their odds are often bet down by recreational bettors. Instead, bettors should looks to the defending SEC champion.
Best Value: Georgia Bulldogs +255
The Georgia Bulldogs are the best bet to win the SEC, and this is the best bet in any conference title market. The Bulldogs rank fourth in The Power Rank’s predictive rankings, second in the SEC behind the second-ranked Alabama. Georgia had a balanced roster last season, ranking 14th in offensive S&P+ and 11th in defensive S&P+, good for 3rd in total S&P+, according to Football Outsiders.
Georgia returns eight starters on offense, including quarterback Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to an SEC title and the College Football Playoff Championship Game as a true freshman, while his 84.1 QBR ranked sixth in the country. The Bulldogs did lose running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to the NFL, but they return DeAndre Swift, who averaged 7.6 yards per rush on 81 attempts last season. Swift is more than capable of replacing Chubb and Michel, and should benefit from four returning starters on an offensive line that ranked 12th in adjusted line yards last year.
The Bulldogs defense loses the 2017 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Roquan Smith, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears this year. The Bulldogs' strength on defense was their ability to contain opposing offenses' explosive plays (one of Bill Connelly’s five factors), as they ranked fourth in IsoPPP+ per Football Outsiders. They are negative regression candidates in that area after losing Smith, but they do return three of their top six tacklers. Two of those players, defensive backs J.R. Reed and Deandre Baker, were named to the preseason All-SEC First Team.
Georgia’s deep roster will likely carry them to the SEC Championship game, but they also benefit from an easy schedule. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) projects them to win every game, with the lowest probability coming in a home game against the Auburn Tigers (66.7%). The only other team they play from the West division is the overrated LSU Tigers, whom they will likely be big favorites against despite playing in Death Valley. Georgia won’t see Alabama until the Championship Game, and since that will be the hardest matchup they’ll have all season, the Bulldogs give bettors tremendous value at current odds.
Long Shot Value: Mississippi State Bulldogs +1400
Behind Georgia, there are no teams that present much betting value among the favorites. Enter the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who have the tools to make a run to the SEC Championship despite a difficult schedule. Mississippi State plays Auburn at home and Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but if they manage to win one of those games, they could qualify for the SEC Championship Game. They’ll be favorites against every other team on the schedule; FPI gives them at least a 60% win probability against nine of their remaining ten opponents (59.6% probability to win against LSU, the tenth remaining opponent).
The Bulldogs only ranked 63rd in offensive S&P+ last season, but managed to convert a solid 46.45% of third downs, thanks in part to the quarterbacking of Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald posted a QBR of 78.5 last year, and he returns with four of the offensive linemen that only allowed 1.1 sack per game, second in the SEC.
Mississippi State’s main strength last season was their defensive line, which was both successful against the run (third in adjusted line yards) and the pass (sixth in adjusted sack rate). They return all four of their defensive linemen from 2017, including All-SEC First Teamers Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons.
While Mississippi State doesn’t have the deep talent pool of Alabama and Auburn, their strengths at quarterback and defensive line will allow them to compete with the best teams in the country. The Power Rank puts the Bulldogs at tenth overall, which is fourth in the SEC. Bettors can be confident that this is one of the best teams despite the challenging division they play in and, at the current odds, Mississippi State is worth a flyer.
Avoid: LSU Tigers +2000
LSU would be a longshot to win the SEC as it stands, and the fact that they only return ten starters doesn’t help. The Tigers play in the most difficult division in college football besides the Big Ten East -- the vaunted SEC West. Their downright frightening schedule compounds this issue, because they drew Georgia and the Florida Gators from the East division, who are the top two projected East teams according to The Power Rank. They also open the season against the eighth-ranked Miami Hurricanes at AT&T Stadium on September 2. Thus, they must play four of the preseason AP top ten teams over the course of the season and are projected to win only six games per FPI.
LSU occasionally struggled in the passing game last season, despite good quarterback play from Danny Etling (80.8 QBR), whom the Patriots drafted in the seventh round this year. Pass-blocking was a weakness, with their offensive line gave up 2.3 sacks per games and ranking 97th in the nation in adjusted sack rate. The Tigers relied on their defense to win nine games last year, but only return five starters from that unit.
Although bettors should avoid LSU in the futures market, there is an opportunity to win money with a bet on the Tigers in the opener. Miami is a tough matchup, but our model only gives the Hurricanes a 51.2% probability to win that one, making LSU +3 a two-star bet. Some books (such as Bovada, as of 8/27/2018) are even offering the Tigers at a 3.5-point spread, which is even better value given our model’s recommendations.