As entertaining and unpredictable as this college football season has been — from COVID-19 postponements to an assortment of upsets to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s magic reappearing act — something was missing.
The party started in early September, and the Big Ten is showing up fashionably late. Welcome back, Justin Fields and Jim Harbaugh. The Mountain West is making a comeback, too, with Boise State leading the charge. Those two conferences are back in action this week, with the Mid-American and Pac-12 soon to follow in early November.
The betting board has expanded to 45 games from Thursday through Saturday, including a rare Big Ten opener under the Friday night lights.
“It’s good to have everybody back, and I think the Big Ten is huge,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “I don’t know if the wagering handle will equal the NFL, but college football could be bigger than ever this week. When you look at the NFL this week, there’s not a lot there. The slate is a little weak.”
The most attractive matchups of NFL Week 7 are Steelers-Titans and Buccaneers-Raiders. Sportsbook business is always brisk on Sundays, no matter who’s playing.
For most of the last two months, the Saturday schedules were light and without late-night options — the so-called get-out games for gamblers — on the West Coast. Welcome back, Hawaii. Three games will kick off after 7 p.m. PT Saturday, highlighted by Texas State-Brigham Young and UNLV-San Diego State.
Avello said the amount of money wagered on college football has declined from previous years, obviously due to a limited schedule, but that’s about to change.
The early portion of the season has been carried by Clemson and the SEC. Trevor Lawrence, the Heisman Trophy favorite, passed for five touchdowns in the first half and the top-ranked Tigers dropped 73 points on Georgia Tech in a Saturday matinee.
In prime time, Alabama roared back from a 24-20 halftime deficit to defeat Georgia 41-24. Saban was cleared to coach the Crimson Tide three days after a false positive COVID test forced him into isolation and seemingly out of the game. In reaction to the initial reports on Saban, the line moved from Alabama -6 to -4. The bettors who swung at the COVID curveball whiffed with the underdog.
“We took a lot of money on Georgia, so it was a good result,” said Avello, who called it the most heavily bet college game of the season. “Was Saban worth two points to the line? He was worth it. He made the adjustments in the second half.”
A handful of teams with playoff hopes have taken costly losses before Ohio State has played a game. Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas are eliminated. In the ACC, count out North Carolina, which just lost at Florida State as a two-touchdown favorite. Reigning national champion LSU is no longer in the title discussion, and Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M sit on the brink of elimination as one-loss SEC teams.
The Big Ten’s eight-game conference-only schedule begins Friday with Illinois-Wisconsin and continues Saturday with the other 12 teams in action. The schedule has no bye weeks and culminates with a Dec. 19 title game.
“Now we get the Big Ten, so that’s like a push into second gear,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. “You usually have a dead December, but it won’t be dead this year.”
In what will be called a make-or-break year for Harbaugh, Michigan’s coach opens his sixth season with a challenging game at Minnesota, which went 11-2 last season. The Wolverines, who have won 16 consecutive times in Minneapolis, opened as three-point favorites.
“Michigan might struggle in what looks like a complete rebuilding year,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said. “Harbaugh might fall under .500 straight up with one of the country’s least experienced teams. The luster is long gone from this hire. Harbaugh should really leave, but does the NFL want him back?”
Junior quarterback Joe Milton could solve some of Harbaugh’s problems. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Milton has size and speed and, according to practice reports, is capable of making 80-yard throws. Some insiders in Ann Arbor are comparing him to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and saying Milton has the talent to be a future first-round pick, if not No. 1 overall.
I like a few home underdogs in the Big Ten, including Minnesota getting 3½. It’s a game the Golden Gophers should win unless Milton plays like Mahomes.
Indiana should have a shot to surprise Penn State, which is missing linebacker Micah Parsons, the Big Ten’s top NFL prospect. Parsons opted out and is not returning to the Nittany Lions.
The league’s two new coaches, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, meet Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans are favored by 13.
“Mark Dantonio was a borderline great coach, and Tucker is a shaky hire,” Marshall said. “The Spartans could begin to really regress.”
Circa Sports opened Purdue as a two-point home favorite against Iowa, but the line flipped to Hawkeyes -3½ partly because of the status of Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm, who’s expected to miss the game after a positive COVID test. His absence should not be a big problem on game day considering the acting head coach will be his brother, Brian Brohm, the offensive coordinator. The home dog looks live.
Ohio State is 19-1 in conference games the last two years, losing only at Purdue in 2018.
The Buckeyes boast the conference’s best Heisman hope in Fields, a former Georgia transfer and dual-threat quarterback who passed for 3,273 yards, rushed for 484 yards and accounted for 51 touchdowns last season.
At the Westgate SuperBook, Ohio State is the odds-on favorite (-225) to win the Big Ten championship, followed by Penn State (7-1), Wisconsin (8-1), Minnesota (12-1) and Michigan (20-1). The Buckeyes, who might need to pile up style points to improve their playoff chances, open the season as 26-point home favorites against Nebraska.
“People love to bet Ohio State,” Avello said. “The Big Ten is basically just as good as the SEC from top to bottom.”