An early look at Week 15 college football point spreads and how bettors are playing the conference championship games
For overall intrigue and drama, Week 14 provided a shot in the pants compared to a drowsy Week 13. Five intra-top 25 rivalry games from the Iron Bowl to Clean, Old Fashioned Hate played out across a busy home stretch-Saturday that barely left viewers with enough time to flip between the channels.
For spread betting purposes, however, Week 14 constituted a straightforward affair. The best FBS covering team, Western Michigan, as well as spread stalwarts TCU, Minnesota, Kansas State and Louisiana Tech all covered. Meanwhile, usual suspects Florida State, Akron, Connecticut, Oregon State and San Jose State did not pay out.
Intriguingly, each of the six potential teams most likely to assume a spot in the College Football Playoff are in action this week either in conference championship games or final regular season games in the case of TCU and Baylor. Who ya got?
Points Of Emphasis
- I'm running out of words to categorize Bill Snyder. Moneymaker? Wizard? How about winner? He is now 94-53 against the spread at home in his career, 157-105 against the spread overall, and with last week's 51-13 win against Kansas, an astounding 15-1 against the spread versus the Jayhawks. In each of the last five seasons, Snyder's not only covered but exceeded the needed spread margin by an average of 20.2 points, according to David Purdum. Snyder's Wildcats exceeded the margin by 10.5 points Saturday. Guess he's losing his edge, huh?
- If there was ever a game to not bet on, it's Southern Methodist at Connecticut (-11.5). The Huskies are the worst against-the-spread team in FBS, with a 2-9 covering record. SMU, however, is the worst overall team in the country and the FBS' only winless squad, sitting at 0-11. I would never bet on Connecticut to cover, but I would never bet on SMU to get anything other than destroyed. I advocate a separate prop bet on how low the Vegas handle for this game is.
- When it lost 37-34 to Nebraska in overtime and failed to cover as a 1.5-point favorite, Iowa dropped to 32-16 against the spread the week after a straight-up loss under coach Kirk Ferentz. This is still, to my knowledge, the second-best such mark among active coaches, with Bob Stoops (23-10) owning the best record.
- Louisiana Tech put up 76 points against Rice last weekend, earning a trip to the Conference USA championship and ensuring a stress-free win for its backers by clearing its 7.5-favorite margin by 37.5 points. The Bulldogs will face a Marshall squad that put up 66 in its matchup against Western Kentucky...and lost, 67-66. The O/U for the for C-USA Championship is a mere 69 points. These two teams could reach that mark in the first half.
- The only team to cover every game it has played at home all year is the TCU Horned Frogs, perhaps illustrating the disparity in national hype between TCU and, say, Alabama or Florida State, teams that bettors often overplay and that often fail to cover. TCU hosts its final game of the season Saturday against Iowa State. The Frogs are listed as 33-point favorites against Paul Rhoads' 2-9 Cyclones.
Week 15 primer
Florida State vs. Georgia Tech (+4) in Charlotte, N.C.
Florida State somewhat flipped the script last weekend against rival Florida. Instead of playing a poor first half and an outstanding second half, it played a poor first quarter, outstanding second quarter and mixed second half. The Seminoles won by five points while their line was seven, so the outcome was still exactly as expected.
Georgia Tech has an outstanding running game that will need to confuse Florida State and lull the Seminoles into not expecting the pass. Tech's passing attack, freed up by the running threat, earns 8.35 yards per play, which is seventh best in the country. Florida State's passing attack is not far behind.
Aside from the expected re-run of Florida State falling behind early, catching up, and winning under the spread margin, the key in this game will be how a strong Seminoles run defense stacks up against the flexbone. A team might run well for one or two quarters against the Seminioles, but running successfully for all four against a squad that has perfected the art of the halftime adjustment is a tall order.
The takeaway from recent weeks is that Florida State continues to not cover. It is 3-9 against the spread this season. Only Connecticut is worse among FBS teams. Florida State remains an impeccable team to bet on the moneyline on and an awful team to bet against the line.
The public's perception of the Seminoles continues to out-value Las Vegas' perception of the Seminoles. If -3.5 holds, look for Florida State to spite its backers and win by three points against a Georgia Tech team that doesn't go away.
Alabama vs. Missouri (+14.5) in Atlanta
Dial up an offensively dominant Iron Bowl victory in the lead-up to an SEC title matchup versus that other division, and, yea, this line is going to shoot up for Alabama. It opened offshore for a hot second at +10.5 and has moved up four points in the 48 hours since. You know who doesn't cover very often? The very recipient of this increasingly bloated line: the Crimson Tide.
Yes, Alabama wagers paid out Saturday, but the Crimson Tide are 4-8 this season against the spread and tend to perform a few points behind wherever Vegas' head is at in a given week. During the 2013 regular season, Alabama was 5-1 against the spread when favored by two touchdowns or more. Since then, the Crimson Tide are 1-5 against the spread when that same margin is in play.
Alabama's unyielding front seven will crush Missouri if the Tigers rely too much on the run, so look for Missouri to go to the air often -- a successful passing attack is the first of two huge keys to the game for Missouri. Alabama's secondary was vulnerable to deep routes by Sammie Coates last weekend, and it could be vulnerable again against the Tigers. Maty Mauk needs to be dialed in and able to find a healthy Darius White and Bud Sasser downfield, and look for Russ Hansborough in the flat on quick drops.
For Alabama, though, Blake Sims and Amari Cooper are borderline unstoppable. This brings up Missouri's second key: The Tigers' pass defense has to have its biggest game of the season. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Markus Golden and his battery-mate Shane Ray need to disrupt Sims and make him force throws into traffic, and Missouri's secondary needs to disrupt Cooper constantly with double-teams and different coverage looks. The Tigers' defense allows an average of 4.8 yards per passing play. That figure is the seventh best in the country. If it keeps that per-play average up Saturday, Missouri will keep this game within the 14-point margin.
No need to wait on this line for movements; I think this is either a 24-point blowout or a two- or three-point game.
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin (-4) in Indianapolis
With the exit of J.T. Barrett due to an ankle injury, this game went from a fascinating potential Pick 'Em to a still-maybe-fascinating-but-terrible-to-bet-on game.
Everyone wants to boil the contest down to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones. I think that's short-sided. Everyone wanted to boil Ohio State down in the early season to J.T. Barrett ostensibly "not being ready to go," whatever that meant. Barrett turned out to be very much ready to go. It didn't turn out well initially, with the Virginia Tech loss, but the expectation was that Barrett wouldn't be ready this season and that Ohio State was done. Barrett and the Buckeyes turned out to be very much not done, a reminder that people who guess about players they've never seen play before usually end up losing money.
Maybe Jones will only take six days to get ready to play decently. Maybe he'll take a week or two, like Barrett did. Maybe he'll never materialize as a viable quarterback for Ohio State. No one knows which of these eventualities will take place.
Wagerers, however, can make decisions based on a few factors independent of Jones' vagaries, such as him reportedly having a "rocket arm" but not making the offense "move" as well as Barrett. Regardless of how good Jones is, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and the Wisconsin offensive line are all insanely good. While the Buckeyes are adept at defending the pass, they are firmly in the bottom half of FBS teams in per-play run defense. That does not bode against the undeniably best rushing team in the country.
On offense, Ohio State can lean on the run somewhat as it eases Jones in but only as part of the game plan, not the entire plan. Wisconsin uncharacteristically surrendered 118 yards on the ground to Daniel Cobb on Saturday, and depending on how the Buckeyes' O-line performs, Wisconsin could yield the same amount or more to running back Ezekiel Elliot.
Meyer is 16-5 during his career as an underdog. The last time Ohio State was a four-point underdog, this column recommended taking the points and, not to brag, ended up being right: Ohio State beat Michigan State by 12 points. However, this time I'm advocating a different position: You bet on this game (if at all) at your own peril.
To me, -4 is a very fair line and therefore hard to exploit based on what we know and, more importantly, what we don't know. Maybe -4 is a steal to you. If so, knock yourself out.
Oregon vs. Arizona (+14.5) in Santa Clara, Calif.
At first glance, Arizona dispatching Oregon earlier this year and then getting laid 14.5 points a second time around makes one nervous with anticipation. You mean to tell me that an Arizona team that just dispatched Arizona State and destroyed Utah only has to play Oregon within two touchdowns, and I'll get paid? Not so fast.
First of all, it is extremely hard to beat a top-five team twice in one season. Yes, Arizona doesn't have to win to pay out, but this is Oregon we're talking about. Even in its most battered and bruised condition earlier this season it was winning games by 12 points. The Ducks rarely "win close." At least healthy, championship-contending Ducks rarely "win close." They either blow a team out, or lightning strikes and someone beats them close.
Speaking of health, Arizona's win against Oregon did come against a Ducks offensive line that was essentially on crutches. That O-line is healthy now (Hroniss Grasu's status is unclear, but Hamani Stevens has filled in well for the All-America center anyway) and has protected Marcus Mariota so well that he's been able to do whatever he pleases back there and do it in two and three-play bursts so quickly that if you get up to refill the chip bowl you miss an entire drive. So don't take it personally, Arizona; I don't think any team can stop Oregon offensively right now.
Comparing the two head coaches against the spread records doesn't turn the tide any more in the Wildcats' favor. Mark Helfrich has covered in each of the last seven games in which his squad was favored by less than 21 points. Last weekend was no different, as Oregon cleared the -20.5 mark against Oregon State in the Civil War. Helfrich is 1-6, though, against the spread during the past seven games in which the Ducks have been favored by more than 21 points. The lone win? Two weekends ago against Colorado when Oregon covered -33 by one point. Three touchdowns is the magic point of no return for these Ducks, not two.
On the other sideline, Rich Rodriguez doesn't exactly cover often in Pac-12 games, going 11-16 against the spread in his three seasons.
Much like the Alabama-Missouri game, I think this is either a three-plus touchdown blowout or a low single-digit margin game. It's possible that quarterback Anu Solomon sets the single-season record for passing yards by a freshman quarterback this year. It's possible Nick Wilson goes off against a mediocre per-play Oregon run defense and scores several touchdowns. Even if these things fo happen, I still think Oregon wins this game.
Now that I've said all that, have fun watching Arizona beat them a second time.
Kansas State at Baylor (-8)
Here we are, on the doorstep of the sort of-Big 12 championship week, and Bryce Petty is concussed. Repeat: Bryce Petty is concussed. He says he will play. He has passed concussion tests. He has more tests to pass. Vegas held the line on this game initially before offering eight points.
Baylor is in a really difficult position here. On the one hand, it badly needs this win in a convincing way. Despite what outspoken Bears AD Ian McCaw might think, Baylor's head-to-head win over TCU does not give Baylor the clear, win-and-you're-the-best-Big-12-team cache the school wants it to. It needs to win handily to give the committee second thoughts about ranking TCU ahead of it. Beating Kansas State handily is quite hard to do, but TCU did it.
On the other hand, Baylor has to limit the number of hard hits it allows Petty to take, not just to preserve his status for whatever games Baylor might play down the road, but for Petty's general health as well. Art Briles does not want to face the scrutiny that would come if he allows Petty to get more severely concussed. As a result, there's some reason to believe we're likely to see a semi-conservative Petty on Saturday.
Even if we do see Petty at 100 percent, though, there's cause for concern for the Bears. Kansas State won't beat elite defensive teams, but it can make a merely good defensive team look silly. It's not surprising that Baylor pass plays result in, on average, an 8.2 yard gain. What may be a little more stunning is that Kansas State tops that number, gaining an average of 8.41 yards per pass play. That mark is good for fifth-best in the country.
It's hard to see how Kansas State could stop a healthy Petty from lobbing bombs to Corey Coleman, but it's also hard to see how a Baylor secondary that gave up more than 600 passing yards to Texas Tech will stop the Wildcats through the air.
Between Petty's potentially affected play, Kansas State's deceptively strong passing game and the aforementioned Bill Snyder covering at an unprecedented clip, this game seems like it's evolving into a perfect scenario for the Wildcats to cover.