“Pick Six” is your weekly college football column that breaks down the upcoming weekend’s six best bets and takes a look at news and notes around the sports betting industry.
Wisconsin vs. Alabama (-12)
Week One’s slate is highlighted by this matchup at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. Alabama’s giving between 10 and 11 points at most shops, and that sounds just about right. While ex-Badger coach Gary Andersen was excellent at exceeding expectations in season openers, the Badgers have lost against the spread in six of their last seven openers. In that same span that Wisconsin went 1-6 ATS, Alabama has made a habit of coming out of the gate strong, going 6-1 ATS in openers, routinely covering against Power Five opponents.
Wisconsin has had success against most teams on the ground, and the Badgers will undoubtedly try to attack Alabama up front with their strong running game, but the Crimson Tide had the best rushing defense in the country last year and are loaded again this year.
That puts the burden on Badgers quarterback Joel Stave and a passing attack that last year faltered against teams whose secondaries are weaker than Alabama’s. Wisconsin will put points on the board, but it won’t win this game if the Tide shut down the Badgers’ ground attack.
The value in this line was earlier in the week, when the Tide sat as 10-point favorites. Alabama is 28-2 S/U in the month of September under Saban, and all but three of those 28 wins came by at least 10 points.
The pick: Alabama (-12)
Ohio State (-14) at Virginia Tech
Ohio State and Virginia Tech facing off in the “Revenge Game’ in Blacksburg on Monday night is arguably the most vexing pick of the weekend. The line opened at -14, dropped down to -10.5, and as of Thursday is now back up to -14. The line dropping and then popping up again reflects bettors’ indecision as to how exactly how to play this game.
On the one hand, public perception of the Buckeyes is crazy high. There’s been an entire off-season’s worth of hype following the team’s three-game closing run to the national championship, a 143-55 cumulative blowout of Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. When enough people think a team is that good, everyone within betting range gets $ signs in their eyes and puts dangerous blinders on. Never trust a team that has 87% of the handle going in to a game, as OSU does here.
Furthermore, Bud Foster’s “Bear Front” was the only defense strong enough last year to slay the Buckeyes—in a Week 2 game that suckered many—and it’s really strong again, with guys like Dadi Nicholas, Luther Maddy and Deon Clarke. Still, Tech is far from a juggernaut on the other side of the ball. The Hokies finished 12th in the ACC in scoring offense last season.
On the other hand, Ohio State is ... Ohio State. The Buckeyes are arguably the most talented offensive team in the country. They have three players who would start at quarterback at most Power 5 schools. If you could craft an offense to attack Virginia Tech’s D, it would look something like the Buckeyes’ unit. Furthermore, betting against Urban Meyer is insane. At 61.6%, Meyer has the third-best career record among active coaches, and went 10-5 ATS with many of the same players in 2014.
Then there's this: Meyer’s teams are an NCAA-leading 35-9 against the spread when he has more than one week to prepare for an opponent.
The pick: UNDER 53
Washington at Boise State (-13.5)
Chris Petersen is taking a Washington defense that just lost three All-Americans to his old stomping grounds at Boise State for a Friday night shootout. Broncos fans love seeing their favorite team beat the “big” programs, but they’ll be especially keyed up for this game in primetime on national television.
Washington has talent throughout its ranks, but Petersen needs some game action to properly evaluate his guys’ strengths and weaknesses. Albertsons Stadium, in front of your old fan base, isn't the best time to do that. Boise, meanwhile, is poised to improve under second-year coach Bryan Harsin. The Broncos lack a proven option at quarterback, but there’s plenty of talent at other positions.
Still, Petersen knows Boise’s players well because he recruited them, and he knows Harsin well because he mentored him. And while Boise has an outstanding track record of winning at home, covering is another matter. The Broncos have won their last 15 games on the blue turf, but they're 7-8 at home ATS in that same span.
When these teams opened the 2013 season, wagers on the Broncos +5 dominated the handle, but those who faded the public were rewarded: Washington crushed Boise State 38–6. The Broncos are a sexy pick, but be careful if this creeps above two touchdowns. Like Alabama, Boise’s value came earlier in the week when it sat at 11-point favorites.
The pick: Boise State (-13.5)
Georgia Southern at West Virginia (-20)
Georgia Southern, as SBNation football genius Bill Connelly recently put it, could have moved up to FBS years ago. Last year, when it finally did, it won the Sun Belt. It also had an 8-4 record against the spread and nearly beat two Power Five teams (North Carolina State, Georgia Tech) on the road. West Virginia is a prime candidate to fall victim to this same fate.
West Virginia will get points in this game. That’s not in question. But here's the thing: The Eagles run the option extremely well, and West Virginia isn’t particularly positioned to defend it. While the Mountaineers’ secondary is its strength, the line could be vulnerable to Willie Fritz spreading the ball out with options in the backfield.
Furthermore, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is 11-21 ATS as a favorite during his time at the program. That’s the worst mark among active coaches with at least three seasons. Expect a close-ish, high-scoring affair here, not the three-touchdown blowout Vegas is predicting.
The pick: Georgia Southern (+20)
Colorado (-7.5) at Hawaii
O.K., O.K., I know what you're thinking. First, Georgia something-or-other, now Colorado-Hawaii? Who cares? What sort of last-gasp, 11:59 p.m. ET degenerate play is this? Fair point. But Pick Six doesn't just center on the biggest matchups. These are the matchups where there’s the most hidden value. (We think. Maybe. Please donÆt come after us if we’re wrong. We’re very nice and just enjoy college football).
Hawaii’s Norm Chow is 2-29 straight up as an underdog. That's … well, that's very sad. However, the Rainbow Warriors have opened each of the last five seasons against a Pac-12 opponent. The results have been oddly similar: A close ATS win for Hawaii in a game that they lose.
|Sept. 2, 2010||USC at Hawaii||USC -21||USC 49, Hawaii 36||S/U Loss, ATS win|
|Sept. 3, 2011||Colorado at Hawaii||Hawaii -7||Hawaii 34, Colorado 17||S/U win, ATS win|
|Sept. 1, 2012||Hawaii at USC||USC -43.5||USC 49, Hawaii 10||S/U loss, ATS win|
|Aug. 29, 2013||USC at Hawaii||USC -23.5||USC 30, Hawaii 13||S/U loss, ATS win|
|Aug. 30, 2014||Washington at Hawaii||Washington -17||Washington 17, Hawaii 16||S/U loss, ATS win|
*In Week 4 of the 2014 season, Colorado beat Hawaii at home 21–12, covering the -8.5 line by half a point.
These factors make this game a perfect “sandwich pick”—taking the favorite to win outright and taking the underdog to cover.
Colorado is expected to improve on defense after allowing 6.55 yards per play last season, and it will certainly need to for the Buffaloes to win by more than a touchdown again this year. Colorado has been weak since 2000 against the spread when playing on the road and out of conference, going 5–11.
The picks: Hawaii (+7.5), Colorado to win, Under 60
Stanford (-12) at Northwestern
At first blush, this game looks nearly impossible for Northwestern to cover, let alone win outright. David Shaw is one of the emerging ATS wizards to watch in college football. He has the second-best career ATS win-loss percentage(62.9) among active coaches through four seasons. Bettors have picked up on this, laying bets two to one on the Cardinal, both on the spread and the money line.
Northwestern’s offense, which will be led by a freshman quarterback, could struggle against Stanford’s defense. The Cardinal have fielded a top-10 scoring defense over the last three seasons, and that’s because they’ve limited teams’ explosive scoring plays.
Thankfully for Northwestern, it's not favorited in this game. Since 2009, the Wildcats are 11-22 ATS when favorited, including 0 for their last 9.
One factor on Northwestern’s side: Home underdogs in games with totals less than 48 are notoriously undervalued, according to SportsInsights. In one of its betting models, using data since 2005, betting exclusively on home underdogs with low totals netted wagerers 31 units over the course of a season, which is more or less equal to betting 31 times and doubling your money each time.
If you want to be safe here, a Stanford moneyline play could be a nice cushion to a parlay.
The pick: Stanford (-12), Under 47
News & Notes
• Many of 2014’s big spread winners (Louisiana Tech, Georgia Tech, Oregon) don’t square off against FBS opponents on the opening weekend while others (TCU, Ohio State, Western Michigan) do. Will these stalwarts regress as teams so often do in the ATS category or show renewed consistency over the 2015 season?
•Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was the hot spread coach to bet on last year, but lost a little of his career ATS luster after a 4-9 record in 2014. That mark was almost identical to Nick Saban’s 4-8-1 ATS at Alabama.
• I thought I’d seen major line movement before, but then I saw Vanderbilt-Western Kentucky fly around on the board: Vandy opened over the summer as -17.5 favorites at home against the Hilltoppers. That line has been bought down to Vanderbilt +2.5 at last check, so the Commodores are home dogs against a Conference USA team for the first time in our recorded data.
• Bonus picks for this weekend: Louisville +10.5 (vs. Auburn), Notre Dame -9.5 (vs. Texas), Vanderbilt +2 (vs. Western Kentucky)