- Look for Penn State, Washington and more to exceed their projected win totals while Missouri and North Carolina fall short of theirs.
The start of the college football season is still over three months away, but the gambling industry is ready with its early projections. And whether you’re placing bets or not, the early win totals are fun because of what they say to expect from teams this season. For example, Alabama’s line at 10 ½ wins is the highest in the country.
So while recognizing that we will certainly learn a lot more over the next three months to influence these predictions, let’s take a look at which teams are being overvalued and which are being snubbed in these early prognostications.
This one’s pretty simple: Do you think Alabama will make the College Football Playoff? If you do, like I do, then odds are you expect the Crimson Tide to win 11 or more games in the regular season. While it’s possible a two-loss SEC champion could still make the playoff, going 11–1 or 12–0 are obviously the much more clear-cut paths.
Turning to Alabama’s schedule, 11 or more wins looks likely. With the Tide again the most talented team in the country, their only true challenges are likely to come from Florida State in the season-opener, LSU on Nov. 4 and Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama will surely be favored in those three, as well as every other game on the schedule, so expecting multiple slip-ups seems unlikely. The Tide haven’t lost multiple regular season games since 2010.
Miami still needs to settle on a successor for Brad Kaaya at quarterback, but with Mark Walton back at running back and eight returning starters on defense, the Hurricanes are in good shape to build on last season’s 9–4 mark and could even earn their first appearance in the ACC title game. On top of the returning production, Miami’s schedule should all but guarantee the Canes hit the over on their win total. They miss Clemson, Louisville and NC State in their divisional crossover games and get Virginia Tech at home. Outside of a Sept. 16 trip to Florida State, every game looks winnable, so expect no more than three losses from Mark Richt’s squad.
This seems like a pretty serious underestimation of a Mississippi State team that should be a threat this fall. No, the Bulldogs won’t contend for the SEC West title, but Nick Fitzgerald gives them one of the top quarterbacks in the conference and guides an offense that could allow them to surprise some teams. There are no major threats on the non-conference schedule (I’m confident the Bulldogs can handle a home date with BYU), so to hit the over, Mississippi State just needs to win two conference games. Home matchups against Kentucky and Ole Miss or road games at Texas A&M and Arkansas will be the best chances.
Arguably the worst team in the SEC is supposed to win a game more than Mississippi State? Sure, the SEC East is easier, but Missouri is still at the bottom of it, and the Tigers are coming off a season in which they won just four games playing in that same division.
Missouri should be better on offense, where it returns 10 starters, including quarterback Drew Lock and leading rusher Damarea Crockett. But there’s little reason for optimism around a defense that ranked 93rd last season in yards allowed per play (6.07). Plus the schedule offers no favors with most of the Tigers’ best shots at conference wins coming on the road: at Kentucky, at Vanderbilt, at Arkansas.
I get the instinct here. Nebraska loses a ton of talent from last year’s nine-win team, is changing quarterbacks and switching its defense. That’s a lot of transition for one off-season, so the safe play is to assume a middling season.
But remember the Cornhuskers play in the Big Ten West, which is basically up for grabs after Wisconsin. Illinois and Purdue are pretty clearly the bottom two, but any order of Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota seems feasible. So basically every game on the Huskers’ schedule apart from matchups with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State ranges from a gimme to a tossup. Expect Mike Riley’s team to take at least seven of those nine, and there’s little chance the Huskers will go under six. 6 ½ would have been a better line.
Only Western Michigan loses more offensive production than North Carolina, according to SBNation.com, and yet this line is set just one win below the Tar Heels’ performance in 2016. Mitchell Trubisky is gone, as is top running back Elijah Hood and three of North Carolina’s top four receivers.
Perhaps a new environment will benefit quarterback Brandon Harris, but his track record at LSU offers little reason for optimism. On defense, the unit that made huge strides the past two seasons to help enable the Tar Heels’ success must now maintain that progress without the defensive coordinator who initiated it, Gene Chizik.
This year’s North Carolina squad may have had enough talent to win seven or more games a few years ago in the ACC Coastal, but with the rising talent level in the division, the Tar Heels could easily slip to fifth. The real question in Chapel Hill is whether North Carolina can make a bowl for the fifth straight season.
I wouldn’t bet against Ohio State with its line at 10 wins, but between the two, I’ll take the added margin for error of Penn State’s 9 ½. With no divisional crossover matchup against Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions’ season essentially comes down to two games: vs. Michigan on Oct. 21 and at Ohio State on Oct. 28. Penn State should be better than everyone else on its schedule and benefits from getting some of the tougher tests in those 10 other games at home (Pittsburgh, Nebraska). The matchups with the Wolverines and Buckeyes will be challenging and will almost surely decide the Big Ten East, but the most likely outcome for Penn State is a split. Even if the Nittany Lions lose both, they could still hit the over as long as they don’t get upset along the way. If they get the split (or even win both), it’d take multiple upsets to push them down to nine wins or less.
With what should be one of the most lethal offenses in the country led by quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley and a defense that returns seven starters after allowing 5.04 yards per play last season, Penn State has the proven talent to replicate its success from last season.
Were it not for USC, Washington would have rolled into the College Football Playoff undefeated last season. So guess who drops off the schedule this year? Of course that doesn’t mean to pencil the Huskies in for 12–0. A trip to Stanford and home matchups with UCLA and Oregon should test Chris Petersen’s squad. But with the bulk of the offense from last season back and some exciting young faces ready to step in to fill holes in the secondary (including Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year Taylor Rapp), it’s hard to draw up a path to nine wins or less.
Remember how the Big Ten West is really just Wisconsin and then a crowded fight for second? That’s why the Badgers will win more than nine games this season. No one in their division seems like a serious threat, especially with 15 starters returning, including quarterback Alex Hornibrook who should progress after a decent freshman campaign.
Outside of the divisional play, don’t expect many slipups either. The Badgers fought through a gantlet of a regular season schedule to win 10 games last year, including battles with LSU, Michigan and Ohio State. The Tigers and Buckeyes drop off the slate this year, and the Wolverines travel to Camp Randall. That makes every game winnable for the Badgers, and while an unbeaten season is too much to expect, 11–1 and a return to the Big Ten championship feels likely.