My overall angle on college football for the past 2-3 years has been simple – conferences are overrated. There’s an “elite” class of NCAA pigskin that transcends the leagues contenders play in. If you put Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, UCF, Boise State, and Oklahoma in a division by themselves, they’d battle it out to the finish and destroy “out of division” opponents most of the time.
Whenever I tout Central Florida to beat a Power-5 team (like Stanford, which the Knights whipped 45-20 last Saturday) I am not arguing that UCF’s American Athletic Conference is as good as a Power-5 conference. I am arguing that UCF – specifically – has an ACC-contender-level kind of roster.
But all handicapping angles have to start somewhere, and it’s only ½ of the successful gridiron gambler’s job to correctly gauge the competitive level of various teams. The other half of the chore is figuring out where bookmakers and the betting public might have it wrong.
That means if gamblers the world over are obsessed with the relative strength of FBS Power-5 conferences, even those who understand the folly of branding must pay attention to the hype scrolls and what mainstream pundits are saying. Mainstream predictions often drive the betting lines.
It helps to remember that ESPN analysts focus on the “ceiling,” or how well the best teams in a league can potentially play in a conference title scrum or in the postseason, while in the meantime Las Vegas posts odds on every FBS game involving every single team. Average games (and ordinary odds) tell us more than looking at a few sparing Top 10 contests.
We won’t be handicapping Alabama and Clemson so much today – plenty of time for that later.
Instead, let’s look at the overall performance of each P5 conference through 4 weeks of the 2019-20 college football season, with an eye on what CFB betting sites and the gambling public have been up to. Is there a conference-based prejudice that bookies and bettors turn to when there’s no other obvious angle to rate 1 school above another?
If so, which leagues are overrated, which are underrated, and where is the value?
Update 9/23: I have been granted an extra weekend of CFB results to include in this analysis, so let’s also take the opportunity to touch on any recent surprises at the front end of conference play (and the back end of opening OOC play) or to confirm that we were correct as to how things are trending.
Power-5 Football in 2019-20: Solid and Shaky Favorites vs Group-of-5
NFL analysts do a good job of acting like mismatched games don’t matter much. But when you see a record “New England 15-1” at the end of the season, there’s an awful lot of wins in there against poor opponents.
Winning the games you’re supposed to win – that’s the name of the game in prep, college, and NFL football alike. Heck, it’s probably the key to winning in Pop Warner too.
Not all Power-5 leagues have begun the 2019 regular season in grand style. The Pac-12 has been battered by a refreshed Mountain West that now threatens to become the best Group-of-5 college football conference, with Hawaii beating Arizona in a dramatic late-night Week Zero contest before the ink could even dry on a new OOC schedule.
Las Vegas has had to adjust on the fly. The Pac-12 hasn’t exactly been the most highly-touted FBS conference headed into the season, but no one could have anticipated USC already losing J.T. Daniels for the season with a ligament tear. Hawaii was a substantial moneyline underdog prior to the win over an over-hyped Wildcat team, but my favorite example of Sin City’s Power-5 prejudice was Mountain West champion Fresno State going into a scrum with USC as a 2-to-1 underdog.
Not that the 2-to-1 market won, but it should have. Fresno State was a (slender) true favorite and nearly prevailed despite a ton of bad breaks.
USC went on to lose to BYU in overtime as a heavy moneyline favorite.
The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference for which Vegas handicappers are rethinking their process less than 1/3rd of the way through the season. Not only do P5 vs Group-of-5 pairings need to be reevaluated, but handicapping in-conference games is easier if you know just how top-heavy a division is.
Let’s look at some further betting trends and results from other Power-5 leagues as the in-league schedules get rolling.
Update: USC has lost yet another QB to an injury, but 3rd-stringer Matt Fink excelled in a Week 4 win over powerful Utah, demonstrating that the Trojans are extremely deep at the most important position on the gridiron.
The ACC Takes a Hit…In Public Relations
Clemson is king of NCAA pigskin after whipping Notre Dame and Alabama in last winter’s College Football Playoff, and showcased the ACC’s top-level chops again in Week 2 as the Tigers beat a strong Texas A&M squad by 2 touchdowns.
But the ACC is taking a beating on social media after various other early-season results called the Atlantic Coast Conference’s dominance into question. Boise State beat Florida State with a terrific comeback to kick off the autumn, and Boston College was blown away by a surprise effort from Les Miles’ new team at Kansas, which paid-off for underdog gamblers at nearly 15-to-1.
Of course, considering the upgrade that the Jayhawks have made in the coach’s chair, maybe KU pulling off a major moneyline upset once in a while shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise.
Then there’s Georgia Tech’s OT loss to The Citadel – which gives the Yellow Jackets the ignominy of not only losing to an 0-2 service academy but an FCS academy to boot.
Is the ACC sliding out of relevance?
The ACC this weekend:
• BC gets destroyed by Kansas at home
• WVU whoops NC State
• GT loses to The Citadel
• VT barely escapes Furman
• Pitt loses to Penn St
Like I said before the season, the ACC is now the WORST P5 conference in the country.
— Live CFB (@LiveCfb) September 15, 2019
Nonsense. Forget any talk of the ACC going away based on a few early-season scores. Pitt’s performance against Penn State was actually pretty good, considering that the Nittany Lions are 1 of the best teams in the Big Ten. FSU losing to Boise State was an example of an underrated coaching staff beating a high-priced overrated coaching staff. Don’t forget North Carolina beating South Carolina either.
As for GT losing to The Citadel, Georgia Tech has made its bed by abandoning an intricate offense and running the same plays as everyone else in the FBS hoping for some type of advantage. The Ramblin’ Wreck has become Vanderbilt until if and when administrators realize their mistake. It has very little to do with the well-being of the overall ACC.
MyBookie’s “floating” national-title futures odds put Clemson at the top with just (+100) (or “Even”) in price. But the next-closest ACC team is Miami at 100-to-1. Clearly, the Tigers’ short line-to-win the CFP is based in part on Clemson’s perceived easy path to another conference championship.
I’m not buying the favorite at those odds. All due respect to Clemson, but the “decline” of the league that the Tigers are in is a short-lived myth that will go away by November.
Update: As I expected, the ACC began to get its mojo back in a Week 4 slate of mostly OOC games. Pittsburgh’s 35-34 upset of Central Florida creates a crisis for the proud Knights and may indeed knock UCF out of the New Year’s Six picture unless the Panthers win the Coastal Division once again. Clemson, Miami, UVA, and NC State each held serve against Group-of-5 opponents, but North Carolina slipped and lost by a FG to the ever-dangerous Appalachian State.
Mack Brown’s big-time experience and expertise as a motivator gives UNC a chance against almost any team on the schedule. But the Tar Heels have a long way to go in building a contender. North Carolina will be a solid underdog ML pick for the rest of the year at favorable odds but also a shaky favorite against anyone who’s still alive in the bowl picture.
SEC Rules – Read That Again Another Way
The SEC has done very little to earn its current place on the MyBookie futures board. Passionate fan bases and endless stroking of favored programs on TV is helping Southeastern schools to short betting lines.
Need proof? Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and LSU are all among the most popular to-win-CFP wagers, with the Tigers bringing up the rear at just 16-to-1 odds as of mid-September.
Keep in mind that those odds have come about even despite bettors’ perceived “knowledge” that the SEC will create a more-difficult path for its 2019-20 national championship contenders.
Florida has lost its starting QB for the year…after barely out-lasting Miami of the ACC in a season-kickoff game in which the Gators did have Feleipe Franks behind center.
Alabama did clobber Duke (and its coach Garrison Keillor, I mean, David Cutcliffe) in Week 1, 42-3. But the Tide followed that up by having problems in the 1st half against the 1-2 USC Gamecocks.
LSU’s quarterback Joe Burrow eats the ball too often under pressure (against Alabama last year, he “Burrowed” a hole and got in it) and is not an elite playmaker, making the Tigers among the most-overrated teams in football at #4 in the AP rankings.
Meanwhile it’s not as if the floor of the SEC is much different than the floor of the ACC. Georgia Tech could be line-forecasted as a 5-to-1 or even a 7-to-1 underdog against Temple on 9/28, but that’s hardly different than Arkansas being a 21-point favorite against pitiful SJSU in Week 4. Arkansas would be a substantial underdog against the Owls no matter how many SEC-partisan high-rollers took a stab at the underdog market. In fact, I’d say the Razorbacks shouldn’t be touted by so much over San Jose State, just as LSU isn’t really a 3+ touchdown favorite to beat Vandy in the same Saturday slate.
ESPN and Fox Sports will keep shouting about the SEC – it’s the rules. But futures bettors face no such “rulebook” and can wager on whoever we want to.
Update: The marquee prime-time match-up of Week 4 was Georgia vs Notre Dame, and while a few hardcore SEC partisans will be annoyed at UGA’s 6-point margin of victory over the Fighting Irish, veteran handicappers tended to think that the contest would be close anyway. Kirby Smart’s squad has reason to be thrilled after posting a big win over a Top 10 opponent and fellow CFP program.
However, the conference also suffered a pair of OOC losses which once again called the depth of the divisions into question. Ole Miss had a chance to compete with the Cal Golden Bears but faltered in the Red Zone and wound up down by 15 in the 4th quarter before losing 28-20. Far more troubling was the Arkansas Razorbacks giving up 500+ yards in a 31-24 upset loss to San Jose State.
The aristocrats of the SEC West and SEC East may be solid parlay-adds when matched against pedestrian underdogs, but it’s hard to trust the lower tiers after seeing a result such as the disaster in Fayetteville on Saturday.
Big 12 – Gamblers’ Patience Will Pay Off Sooner Than Later
The Big 12 took some hits to its street-credibility over the last couple of weeks.
For instance, Oklahoma State didn’t exactly crush Tulsa by the expected score, but of course that’s an in-state rivalry game and hard to pick ATS.
Speaking of in-state rivalry games, there was no more dramatic scrum in Week 3 than the Iowa Hawkeyes’ 18-17 win over the Iowa State Cyclones. IU trailed almost the entire time at Jack Trice Stadium before Nathan Stanley finally scored at the end of a frustrating offensive day.
Then there’s the disappointing loss by Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders’ fast-paced Air Raid offense failed to score more than a single TD per half against victorious Arizona.
The 3rd most-popular Big 12 CFP wager is the Oklahoma State Cowboys at 125-to-1 payoff odds, showing just how lowly the conference’s middle tier is perceived by a majority of speculators.
But the big-shots of the Big 12 – Texas and Oklahoma – continue to plow through opponents.
The Sooners haven’t been seriously threatened yet behind a resurrected Jalen Hurts at QB, utilizing a 21-point 3rd-quarter explosion to get safely ahead of Houston in Week 1, then holding serve against South Dakota and UCLA. Texas, meanwhile, is 2-1 and yet ranked #12 in the FBS after a dramatic shoot-out loss to LSU and 2 breezy wins over G5 teams.
Oklahoma is currently (+1400) to win the national title, and the Longhorns are (+8000) or 80-to-1. You could probably just about halve both payoff lines if the schools didn’t have each other to deal with in the Red River Showdown on October 12th and potentially in another Big 12 Championship Game.
Update: TCU’s Week 4 loss to Southern Methodist underscores the depth of the American Athletic Conference as well as the gradual decline of Gary Patterson’s program from the national championship contender it once was. But Iowa State’s Brock Purdy had a humungous dual-threat outing in a 52-point massacre of Louisiana-Monroe, and I’m liking the Cyclones to make a lot of dough for gamblers on the moneyline as a favorite and as an underdog through the team’s 2019 conference slate.
Big Ten – Is Ohio State a True National Favorite?
The Big Ten’s national championship futures are possibly the most curious of all. Ohio State has virtually shocked pundits with a tremendous opening run that includes a 42-0 shut-out of powerful Cincinnati and easy wins over Indiana and Lane Kiffin’s Power-5-Lite program from FAU.
Like a lot of handicappers, I calculated that despite the constant threat of scandal and upheaval, former Buckeye coach Urban Meyer gave OSU a 1-to-3 touchdown tactical advantage that would go away now that the legendary skipper is at-least-temporarily retired from the gridiron.
But there’s no “tactical advantage” like a Heisman-candidate such as Justin Fields at QB, nor like a defense that is at least threatening to be a steady week-in-week-out force on the field as opposed to the flaky unit it often was in 2017 and 2018.
Still the Buckeyes remain just a (+900) pick to win the College Football Playoff. Perhaps gamblers at MyBookie are thinking that Ohio State has a tougher row to hoe that certain contenders from other Power-5 conferences, considering that Michigan and Penn State are considered dark-horse CFP possibilities, and other Big Ten teams like Purdue and Iowa are flourishing.
Are the bettors forgetting that rising tides lift all boats in college football? There’s no such thing as a quality CFP bet from a terrible conference, since a soft schedule forces a school to win every single Saturday to remain in the postseason picture.
The fact that the Big Ten is rated among the top 2 or 3 Power-5 leagues in 2019-20 means that Ohio State has a nice margin-for-error in its regular season schedule.
That’s a luxury for OSU futures gamblers that Big 12 and Pac-12 buyers don’t get to keep in their back pockets through October and November.
Update: If a rising tide lifts the entire brand, Big Ten schools might be able to thank Ohio State for a tsunami to ride on in 2019. In Week 4 the Buckeyes briefly fell behind against Miami of Ohio, then destroyed the RedHawks 76-5 as Fields scored 6 combined TDs…helping to dismiss critics who have complained of the solid young QB not putting up “Haskins numbers.”
Spoiled and impatient Columbus fans notwithstanding, the program appears to have taken a step up, not down, with the departure of Meyer.
Look for OSU’s futures markets to gradually shrink if the team remains unbeaten into October, but there’s still time to get in on the lucrative action as bettors reject analysis of P5 vs G5 games. Speculators will largely wait for key contests against Michigan State on 10/5 and Wisconsin (which clocked Michigan badly in Week 4) on 10/26 before making a judgement.
But every college football outcome means something, and Ohio State has already shown us a lot, winning its 1st league scrum over Indiana by 41 points on Sept. 14th.
Ignore those who speak in absolutes like “they haven’t played anybody.” The Buckeyes are likely to destroy many more solid opponents by the time it’s all over, making the team a strong pick to cover ATS in most of its autumn games in addition to a bargain national-title future at current market prices.