Ohio State and Michigan State are indisputably successful on the football field. The record is a combined 19-1 as they prepare for their Saturday showdown in Columbus (3:30 PM ET, ABC) and it would be a perfect 20-0 if not for a terrible officiating blunder that cost Michigan State a win at Nebraska. But the Spartans and Buckeyes haven’t been so good to their backers at the betting window—a combined 7-13 against the spread (ATS).
Michigan State is the slightly bigger offender, going 3-7 ATS to Ohio State’s 4-6. But for Saturday’s game that can be cancelled out by the fact the Buckeyes have been atrocious bet at home, failing to cover in five of six home games.
It might sound harsh to call this game a battle of the overrateds, but ATS numbers like that make it difficult to dispute. The spread reflects how the teams are ‘rated’ by opinion that is informed (though not infallible) and coldly objective and these two haven’t measured up.
Maybe expectations were unreasonably high—when you see Ohio State (-13) against a team one point away from being undefeated themselves, it’s enough to make you wonder if these programs simply haven’t been bet past the capacity of any normal college football team to deliver. It happened to Alabama and Florida State last year, who covered a combined five spreads in the 2014 regular season, and it’s happening in Columbus and East Lansing in 2015.
Figuring out the reasons why are going to be crucial, because even beyond Saturday, both are going to play in significant games that will be fun to watch—meaning they’ll be fun to bet. Ohio State has its trip to Michigan. Michigan State has a less-marquee, though still very interesting game with Penn State. The odds say either the Buckeyes or Spartans will be in the Big Ten Championship Game and then we could have one of them in the College Football Playoff and the other in the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State and Michigan State have separate problems, neither of which should shock us. The Buckeyes’ issue is offense. It’s not that they can’t move the ball—they’re still ranked 23rd in the country in scoring, still have an elite rushing game the fact we have to call this unit a “problem” vis-à-vis their ATS record is perhaps indicative of them being bet past the point of reasonableness. But when a team is treated like the college version of the New England Patriots, they need the offense to back it up. And the Buckeyes, with the inconsistency at quarterback, haven’t had that. The defense ranks #2 in the nation.
You could look at Michigan State’s ranking of 38th on offense and 34th on defense and say they’re a balanced team. But we’ve become accustomed to Sparty ranking much higher on the defensive side of the ball. When defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take the Pitt job, there was a belief in some circles that the Spartans D would just continue unabated. That proved to be a naïve belief. Consequently, Michigan State’s overall rankings suggest a pretty good team, but not the national contender they are consistently priced as—hence, the poor ATS record.
When you look at the 13-point spread for Saturday’s game it’s fair to wonder if the market has adjusted to the new reality with the Spartans, perhaps aided by their unfair loss in Nebraska, while staying stubborn with Ohio State. The Buckeyes have provided just enough to tease bettors, they haven’t actually lost outright yet, they have a much bigger brand name and a coach who has won three national championships. If you’re just a fan of Ohio State, those are great things. If you’re handicapping Ohio State, those are all warning signs of a team that can be overpriced.
My handicapping team is breaking down this game from every angle, from the matchups to the metrics. We’re studying film and we’re reviewing statistical data. Our work will determine if we make this game a part of the Saturday slate released to clients.
Once the ball is kicked off, I’m going to be thinking ahead and I encourage you to do the same. Will Ohio State’s offense finally find some rhythm with J.T. Barrett finally settled in as the starter and making a second straight start? Will Michigan State’s defense find its old form as the season wears on? Those are the issues that are going to decide how these teams perform against the number in the multitude of interesting games they still have ahead.
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.