As weekly bettors and watchers of college football, we can plainly see the Southeastern Conference is the best league top to bottom. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the Big Ten.
Nothing has seemed to change the preseason perception that it looks to be Ohio State and Michigan State at the top and then everyone else. From a talent and winning standpoint, that’s absolutely true. But from a betting standpoint, it has not been the case, with the Buckeyes and the Spartans starting the season 1-3 and 0-4 against the spread, respectively.
Will this Big Ten trend continue or can the big favorites get right against lesser opponents starting out in conference play?
• Army at Penn State (-27; total 46): Penn State has covered two in a row as a home favorite after losing at Temple and a very sloppy performance versus Buffalo. Meanwhile, Army comes to Happy Valley off its first win at Eastern Michigan. However, Army might come in short-handed, with quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw listed as questionable for Saturday’s game. Penn State ranks 14th in the nation in rushing defense, but playing against a triple-option offense with slightly less than a week’s preparation is always a tricky proposition.
I don’t really want any part of Army, but I can’t really lay close to four touchdowns with a Penn State offense that can struggle to move the ball and also have difficulty protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. This isn’t a game I’m likely to bet, but if I had to, I would look under the total.
• Purdue at Michigan State (-21½; total 55): The Spartans are only the third team in Division I/FBS college football since 1980 to start the season 4-0 straight up and 0-4 ATS. Purdue made the switch to redshirt freshman David Blough at quarterback, and the early returns were good (29 of 39; 340 yards; one passing touchdown; one rushing touchdowns). This game is a bit of a tough call. The opening number of 24½ was a good number to take the Boilermakers, and the sharp players early in the week obliged. If this number continues to go down and we can lay less than three touchdowns, then Michigan State is definitely worth a look.
• Minnesota at Northwestern (-3½; total 39½): The Gophers got right last week, but had to go to the wire to beat Ohio. Northwestern was predictably sloppy as a big favorite against Ball State. The Wildcats are only 12-24 ATS as home favorites during coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure in Evanston. By and large, I’m not a big trend bettor, but this spot screams Minnesota. The Gophers are off two straight non-covers at home against Mid-American Conference teams, but I think this is their spot.
• Iowa at Wisconsin (-6½; total 45): Two very stingy defenses meet in Madison. Iowa is allowing only 2.65 yards per carry on the ground, and Wisconsin has allowed three total points in three games since its opening loss to Alabama. The Hawkeyes have lost nine straight to ranked opponents dating to the 2011 season, including two to the Badgers in back-to-back seasons. Nevertheless, this looks like a better Iowa team than the last several years, and the first time the Hawkeyes have started 4-0 since 2009 when they went to the Orange Bowl.
Wisconsin is still without preseason All-Big Ten running back Corey Clement. Over the years, the Badgers have been able to plug and chug running back after running back for big numbers, but they look like they will miss Clement’s speed in the open field. The Hawkeyes are worth a play, and plus-7 is available.
• Michigan (-15½; total 42) at Maryland: This was originally scheduled to be a prime-time game but was moved to the early slate in anticipation of Hurricane Joaquin on the East Coast. Michigan has been impressive with three straight blowout home wins after its opening loss at Utah. On the other hand, Maryland was embarrassed at West Virginia last week and blew a fourth-quarter lead to Bowling Green two weeks before that. Terrapins coach Randy Edsall has some real estate agents on speed dial as his seat gets hotter and hotter even with his recent contract extension. With all the negativity surrounding Maryland of late, I just think this number is too high for the Wolverines to lay on the road. I’m not running out to bet Maryland, but it would be the Turtle or nothing here.
• Ohio State (-21; total 66) at Indiana: The Buckeyes were seemingly sleepwalking through their past three home games and have failed to cover all three big numbers. If there is a spot for them to get right, it’s probably here. On the other side, Indiana has started 4-0 for the first time since 1990. The Hoosiers have had to come from behind in three of four of their wins in the second half and have not exactly played murderers’ row (Southern Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky, at Wake Forest). In fact several national pundits have dubbed them the worst 4-0 team in the nation, but 4-0 is still 4-0. The Hoosiers are obviously outmanned, but they did put up 27 points in Columbus last year with essentially a one-man offense in running back Tevin Coleman.
This has me looking at the total. The Hoosiers are giving up 35 points per game and 544 total yards per game in their three home games. Ohio State can move the ball at will. The Buckeyes defense has been stout thus far, allowing a little over 12 points per game, but this is the best offense they have faced. The spread looks right, but I believe over the total is worth a look.
• Nebraska (-6½; total 56½) at Illinois: Nebraska is the better team, but I don’t have a lot of interest laying a touchdown on the road. If I had to bet it, I’d bet Illinois plus the number. But a wise man once told me that the bookmakers have to put numbers on every game, but the players don’t have to bet on every game.
• Bonus picks: BALL STATE (+6½) over Toledo; TULSA (+7) over Houston; Arizona State (+14) over UCLA; Arizona (+14) over STANFORD; Air Force (+5½) over NAVY; GEORGIA (-1½) over Alabama; SOUTHERN METHODIST (+5½) over East Carolina.
Wes Reynolds is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @WesReynolds1