The anointing of Ohio State for a repeat national championship has begun—the Buckeyes were the first unanimous preseason #1 in the history of the AP poll when that venerable organization released its voting results earlier this week. Las Vegas is no less bullish on the Bucks, slotting Ohio State is a decisive 2-1 favorite to win it all in Glendale on January 11. There’s no question Urban Meyer has a terrific team. But does that make them a terrific bet?
Ohio State is not a perfect team. They have youth on the offensive line, with two sophomores in starting roles. They have to replace a pair of defensive lineman, something that can’t be overlooked in the run-heavy Big Ten.
While Meyer has a well-documented embarrassment of riches at quarterback, even that comes with its own challenges—he can’t afford to have the locker room split between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, even if Braxton Miller made everyone’s life easier by agreeing to switch to wide receiver.
Then there’s the suspensions. Four players will miss the season opener on Labor Day Night at Virginia Tech, including All-American defensive end Joey Bosa. If Ohio State gets through this game, which they remain favored to do, then that issue is past them. But it’s one more fly in the ointment.
None of this is to suggest that the Buckeyes are uniquely vulnerable or that they shouldn’t be ranked #1. What I am suggesting is that 2-1 is a very short price when the season is just beginning. You can likely wait until the beginning of the Playoff and get close to the same price, but without any lingering questions.
Public handicappers have to look elsewhere for value. Here’s a brief rundown of how the challengers to Ohio State are viewed in Las Vegas, and some pertinent thoughts on each group of teams:
THE PRIME CHALLENGERS: TCU (6-1), Alabama (13-2): This is rarefied air for the Horned Frogs, with their #2 preseason ranking in the AP poll being the highest in their history. The Crimson Tide are more interesting. It’s a short price, but about as good as anyone will get with a Nick Saban-coached team. If early games, like the September 5 prime-time affair with Wisconsin at Cowboys Stadium show an improved ‘Bama defense, the Tide are worth a serious look.
OTHER CHALLENGERS: Auburn (12-1), Baylor (15-1), USC (18-1): Two of these teams have potentially serious off-the-field issues. USC head coach Steve Sarkisian just went on an alcohol-induced tirade at a boosters banquet and those who close to the program are tired of seeing this proud school continue to generate headlines for the wrong reasons. Baylor’s problem is much more serious—there are reports that a criminal past for transfer Sam Ukwuachu was covered up by head coach Art Briles.
THE 20-1 SHOTS: Oregon (22-1), Florida State (25-1), Michigan State (25-1), Notre Dame (25-1), LSU (28-1): All of these teams offer real value at these prices. Oregon and Florida State have retooling to do, but both have recruited well and both have a proven ability to get through the long regular season and be playoff-caliber. Both will be tested in conference play, but in neither case is there one particular league challenger that the Ducks or Seminoles should fear.
Michigan State has an extremely talented quarterback in Connor Cook. We know how good their defense has been in recent seasons and if head coach Mark Dantonio can replace coordinator Pat Narduzzi then the Spartans are going to be for real. Notre Dame has 18 returning starters from a team that spent half of last season looking like a Playoff team before falling apart at the end. A bowl win over LSU revitalized hopes in South Bend. As for the Tigers, if Alabama is vulnerable, the Tigers are as good a bet as any to move to the top of the SEC West, which means a favorite’s role in the conference championship game and clear path to the Playoff.
Michigan State and Oregon play head-to-head on September 12 in East Lansing. If you like either of these teams, I would suggest moving now. The winner of that game will see the price drop significantly and still have a tough road ahead. Conversely, even if your team loses that game, there’s still time to rebound in the polls.
THE 30-1 SHOTS: Clemson (30-1), Georgia (35-1), Oklahoma (35-1), UCLA (35-1): Here again are a group of teams that have very realistic chances of at least making the Playoff. UCLA is as good as anyone in the Pac-12. Georgia is a solid favorite in the SEC East, which at least gets them a conference title game shot and we have to think that any SEC champion is a lock for the four-team field.
Clemson has missed chances against Florida State over the last couple years. The Tigers were crushed at home in prime-time by Jameis Winston & Co. two years ago, and last season, Clemson lost a game that Winston was suspended for. That’s enough to raise skepticism about whether Dabo Swinney’s team can make an undefeated run in the ACC, but if you believe in them to beat Florida State at home, then Clemson is a reasonable shot at this price.
Oklahoma wouldn’t seem to be a contender on the surface, after they came undone at the end of last season, including being blown out by Clemson in a bowl game. But Bob Stoops is the kind of head coach who can rally a program when they’re being written off (remember OU’s Sugar Bowl win over Alabama following the 2013 season?). If TCU can’t handle the favorite’s role and Baylor’s internal controversies break them, then the Sooners are the likely heir to the throne in the Big 12.
NOTABLE LONGSHOT: Boise State (185-1)—Let’s be candid—we’re not optimistic that the Playoff selection committee, stacked with power conference representatives, would ever give the Broncos a fair shake. Nor are we confident that Boise could win two straight playoff games even if they did. But can Boise go undefeated? Absolutely. And is 185-1 a reasonable enough price given the other factors? Absolutely. A smart wagering strategy always leaves room for a longshot and Boise is worth the price.
The college football season gets rolling a week from tonight on September 3. It’s about time we get real football games that count on our TV sets and I’m ready to watch!
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.