The Big Ten and the SEC are about as close to rivals as two leagues can be. The bowl season always offers several high-profile matchups, mostly on New Year’s Day, where the conferences match up. They’re easily the leagues with the most television exposure, with the Big Ten Network being owned by Fox and the SEC Network owned by ESPN. But until last season, their rivalry was about as hard-fought as the battle between a hammer and the nail.
Over a four-year period, the SEC’s bowl record validated its reputation as the best conference in the country. The SEC has a 26-14 record while the Big Ten is at 14-21 in that same timeframe, due in large part to the consistent New Year’s Day beatdowns the SEC delivered.
But last season marked a change. The overall performances were close to even, with the SEC going 7-5 and the Big Ten clocking in at 6-5. In the head-to-head matchups, Wisconsin beat Auburn and most important was the high-profile victory of Ohio State over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff semi-final.
It wasn’t the whole story—Missouri also beat Minnesota and Tennessee coasted past Iowa. But the two biggest stories of last year’s college football postseason were Ohio State’s national title and the collapse of the SEC West. In addition to Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State all laid an egg in their bowl matchups. The defeats were a big blow to SEC prestige and an offseason where Michigan’s hire of Jim Harbaugh was the most significant development added to the positive buzz moving around the Big Ten.
The SEC reclaimed some mojo in non-conference play this season when Alabama handled Wisconsin, but the real test begins now. Each conference has put ten teams in bowl games and they’ll play head-to-head in five of those, including another Playoff matchup when Alabama meets Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
I want to walk through some of the factors my staff and I at WinningEdge.com are looking at with each game, both the head-to-head conference matchups as well as ones they’ll play against other leagues. But before beginning, I want to remind everyone of an adage that many in football handicapping subscribe by—it’s that the pointspread matters less in the bowl season than any other time of year.
The reason is that underdogs often end up winning outright—disinterested favorites are common and Las Vegas can misfire in pricing teams from disparate parts of the country with few common opponents. I mostly agree with this line of thinking and believe the focus of football betting should be picking the outright winner. For those of you who are in bowl pools where you’re required to pick every game against the number, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.
But for those of you who wager these games individually, be careful not to oversimplify. The spread still matters, even if not as decisively as in the regular season and knowing how to pick your spots—how to narrow the card down to which games to bet and how many units to invest still have to be settled by the number. I’ll be constantly evaluating how these conferences and others match up throughout the bowl season before making final gameday decisions.
That being said, let’s dive into the Big Ten & SEC. We’ll start with the games where they don’t face each other…
Liberty Bowl: Arkansas (-11.5) Kansas State
Sugar Bowl: Ole Miss (-7) Oklahoma State
Texas Bowl: LSU (-7) Texas Tech
Birmingham Bowl: Auburn (-2.5) Memphis
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State (-5) N.C. State
Music City Bowl: Texas A&M (-2.5) Louisville
The Sugar Bowl matchup features two teams that were at their best earlier in the season. Ole Miss has never matched their September win at Alabama, and Oklahoma State lost to both Baylor and Oklahoma. The pointspread has to be reflective of respect for the SEC because there’s nothing in the resumes of either one that would explain a number this high. Make sure the SEC proves they deserve it this season before laying the points.
LSU is a classic case of a team that might have been completely disinterested after the late-season struggles, but now might completely flip and become a team absolutely motivated to play for head coach Les Miles, saved from firing at the eleventh hour. The lines in the Belk and Music City Bowl contradict the notion of SEC respect—both are fairly short given this conference’s historic dominance of the ACC. The same goes for Auburn against Memphis.
Big Ten Games
Ohio State (-6.5) Notre Dame
Stanford (-6.5) Iowa
Indiana (-1.5) Duke
UCLA (-6.5) Nebraska
Minnesota (-5.5) Central Michigan
USC (-3) Wisconsin
Is it lack of respect for Iowa or a lot of respect for Stanford driving this hefty number in the Rose Bowl? Particularly given that Stanford lost in this venue two years ago to Michigan State and lost this year to Northwestern, a division rival of Iowa’s whom the Hawkeyes destroyed. It seems even more curious that another Big Ten West team, Wisconsin is getting a decent amount of respect against USC. The Badgers have considerably less team speed than USC, have not won a game of note all year and will play in a SoCal venue at San Diego.
The contradictions continue through the other games. Indiana is only a 6-6 team and it’s hard to see them as a favorite in any non-conference game against a worthy opponent. This may be an anti-Duke move, as the Blue Devils faded after being robbed of a win against Miami in that officiating travesty on the game’s final play. Minnesota, on the other hand, is a short favorite against a mediocre MAC team. Yes, the Gophers are 5-7, but they played Michigan and Ohio State down to the wire.
Now we get to the four head-to-head battles…
Outback Bowl: Tennessee (-8) Northwestern—Are the Wildcats being disrespected? As noted, they beat Stanford head-to-head and the Cardinal is getting respect from the oddsmakers. Northwestern also beat Wisconsin, who is getting some respect. Or this is a case of NU just matching up well against teams who play physical, but will have problems against a speed-oriented team?
Citrus Bowl: Michigan (-4) Florida—The Gators showed well in their 29-15 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, a game Florida covered a (+17.5) spread. The Wolverines did not show well in their 42-13 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State. Do you play recent form or the season-long arc, the latter of which would favor Michigan?
Taxslayer Bowl: Georgia (-6.5) Penn State—Georgia is the better team, but they are in flux after the departure of head coach Mark Richt, while Penn State wants to get some positive momentum going in the James Franklin era. This is likely a case where understanding motivation—namely, does Georgia have it—will be critical to picking the winner.
Cotton Bowl: Alabama (-10) Michigan State—Here’s the big one and once again the Tide are laying big points to the Big Ten champ (Alabama was favored by nine going into last year’s game with Ohio State). We know the Tide’s defense is great and that Derrick Henry might be hauling a Heisman Trophy to Dallas with him. But the offense is still one-dimensional and Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook will have a few weeks to get his bum shoulder healthy. Whether Sparty can throw the football well is going to be a huge factor in finding the winner here.
Handicapping the bowls is a unique phenomena, from judging inter-conference teams to having to double as a psychologist in understanding motivation. The Big Ten and SEC are at the forefront of those decisions and they’re primed for another bowl rivalry battle.
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.